'We need to keep them in school' – US Secretary of Education speaks about top issues facing school districts

Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks to the Washington News Bureau’s Jamie Bittner about masks, staffing in schools and federal funding.
Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 10:34 AM MST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - With Omicron continuing to impact schools across the country, the Washington News Bureau’s Jamie Bittner spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona about masks, school staffing, and how districts can wisely spend federal dollars.

“Student safety is always the primary concern right?” Cardona said.

Secretary Cardona recognizes managing school safety during COVID-19 is challenging with so many different opinions over issues like mask protocols.

“I think everyone is tired of COVID. We all have pandemic fatigue. I know I have it. I also am tired of wearing masks,” said Cardona. “But I also know that if it means that my community is safe, my family is safe, and I can protect those around me, I’m going to do it.”

Worker shortages are also impacting school districts, as several report dwindling numbers of staff like teachers and school bus drivers.

“No one wants to see their schools closed,” Cardona said. “We recently sent out a ‘dear colleague’ letter, just reminding folks that the American Rescue funds can be used to provide incentives for more substitutes. Maybe we look at relaxing some legislative policies that prevent substitutes from coming back if they’re retired teachers.”

“Any worries about the future generations falling behind?” Bittner asked.

“Yes, but we have to mobilize as educators as leaders to make sure we’re assessing where our students missed instruction and accelerate the learning in those areas that were missed.” Cardona said.

Cardona said money from CARES, the American Rescue Act, and the infrastructure bill can help expand programs and support. He said vaccinations will also help keep students in class.

“We should also be keeping our kids in school,” said Cardona. “At this point i don’t see any reason why the default thinking should remote learning.”

Read what the Secretary of Education had to say on the following topics below:

SCHOOL STAFFING SHORTAGES

“You know, student safety is always the primary concern, right? So when we talk about COVID 19 spread, we know what to do to keep them safe. And across the country, we’re hearing, you know, stories of where schools have to close because insufficient staffing can lead to safety issues. No one wants to see their schools closed. Everyone understands the importance of in-person learning. But we’ve recently sent out a dear colleague letter just reminding folks that the American Rescue Plan funds can be used to provide incentives to get more substitutes. So if we increase pay, maybe we’ll get more substitutes for the next three to four months while we work through the latest variant, the latest disruption. Maybe we look at relaxing some legislative policies that prevent substitutes from coming back in if they’re retired teachers and getting their pension. So we have to be creative. We have to think outside of the box. I know... Kentucky and Connecticut announced flexibilities so that retired teachers can come back into the classroom. These are folks that have spent a career positively shaping the lives of kids. Let’s get them back in the classroom for the next three to four months without any penalty to their retirement. We need to be innovative. We need to be bold, but that’s the American way.”

ADVICE TO DISTRICTS ON HOW TO HANDLE DEBATES OVER TOP ISSUES

“You know, I think everyone’s tired of COVID. We all have pandemic fatigue. I have it. I also am tired of wearing masks. But I also know that if it means that my community is safe, my family is safe and I can protect those around me. I’m going to do it, and I think we just have to continue

to remind ourselves that we’re in this together. You know, we’re in this together. Yes, things have become politicized. And yes, people’s frustration is showing not only in schools, our school board meetings, but on, you know, on airplanes. You know, we’ve seen countless stories of people just losing it. We have to be civil. We have to continue to work together to get through this together. I think that’s the message and continue to lean on our science experts, our health experts who are monitoring the spread of this and the changes and variants and what it means they’re monitoring it. So as their guidance changes, we have to be adaptable, and we have to change as well.”

FUNDING FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS

“In March 2020, I remember having conversations with superintendents who when superintendents said, ‘Oh, my kids have Chromebooks. They have good internet. They have good quality curriculums, digital, we’re good.’ And then I talked to another superintendent who said...four weeks after the pandemic started, I still haven’t reached all my kids. Those disparities were unsettling. We’re in a different place now, you know, with the CARES funds and recently the American Rescue Plan funds. There should be no child in the country that doesn’t have access to a device, and we’re working really hard to get that broadband up to par. I’m really pleased with the infrastructure plan that’s going to address that.

We’re in a different place. We should have the tools now. I just came back from Indiana, where they received over $1 billion. So we have the resources there. The President made education a priority not only in funding or devices and technology, but also in vaccinations. So, we should also be keeping our kids in school. At this point, I don’t see any reason where the default thinking should be remote learning for kids. Kids suffered enough. Families suffered enough. We need to keep them in school, but we need to give them good technology in our schools as well.

ANY WORRIES OF FUTURE GENERATIONS FALLING BEHIND?

“Of course, there’s a lot of missed instruction. You know, I’m a father of two high schoolers. My son was taking pre-calculus during all this. So I’m sure there was an impact... that’s a tough class anyway. So yes, but we have to mobilize as educators, as leaders to make sure we’re assessing where our students missed instruction and... accelerating the learning in those areas that were missed. That’s our responsibility as educators to do that with the resources that we have. So that means more robust summer school programs. That means after-school programing for students or tutoring programs for students. That means smaller class sizes, additional social workers and student teachers that serve students with disabilities. The funding is there for that, and this is not an overnight fix. We’re going to be working on this for the next several years to make sure we not only recover from the pandemic, but really make education a better product for our students across the country.”

MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT

“I am very concerned about that, but I can tell you, you know, we’re not talking enough in this country... we’re not talking enough about the positive impact of our schools being reopened this fall. You know, again, as a parent, I’ll tell you my children were thrilled when they went back to school. So a lot of emotional healing by being with their peers, by being with their teachers is happening. And, I think part of the urgency around keeping our schools open is because we have seen the benefit of the in-person learning. But specifically, around programing for social emotional well-being and mental health supports. We prioritized the American Rescue Plan funds to go toward that. That was one of the priorities. We even provided guidance. We provided a mental health guidance document, first of its kind out of the Department of Education with tremendous resources and really support for states and districts that are looking to make the social. Emotional support’sa bigger part of the school day for the students because we recognized that their mental health was very vulnerable this past year and a half.”

STATE OF EDUCATION

“The president made it very clear from day one that education is a priority. And, if you think about the policies, look at the policies that came through with the American Rescue Plan, the funding for education that was there, that was unheard of before, the infrastructure plan that works to address bandwidth issues for our students, but also address lead pipes that over 400,000 of our schools have - and now with this build back, better proposal that invests unprecedented amount of funds for Title one schools for special education. The President understands the importance of education. So, we’re lockstep in making sure we turn the page in education and elevated to a level that’s never been before.

WHERE IS EDUCATION HEADING IN THE FUTURE?

“You know, when I respond to that, I really have to say that we need to think not only about reopening our schools and keeping them safe, but beyond COVID, even if we’re in the pandemic, we really need to think about how we can reimagine education, give students more opportunities, especially because of the last two years. So, you know, as we learn to adapt to what the pandemic brings, we must continue to keep our eye on improving opportunities for all students to be successful and have career and college pathways where they can lead to lifelong happiness. That’s the goal, and I really believe that, you know, this pandemic has given us curveballs, but we must continue to focus on not only getting them in school, but providing the best opportunities for them to be successful.”

ON VACCINES

“I do want to reiterate the importance of ensuring that our children have access to vaccines. We know it works. I mean, this could have been much worse across the country. Our schools could have been shut down or our offices all over could have been shut down like it was in March 2020 if it weren’t for the vaccine. So what we’re finding now is the majority of hospitalizations are those who are not vaccinated. So vaccines work. They’re safe, they’re free. Take advantage of making sure those around you are vaccinated, especially for those little ones that are not yet able to be vaccinated and those who are vulnerable who can’t get the vaccine. It’s our responsibility to take care of our neighbor, protect ourselves.”

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