Secretary of Education nominee Miguel Cardona told senators Wednesday that if confirmed, he will do everything in his power to reopen schools safely and called for prioritizing educators for the vaccine and increasing Covid testing at schools.
“There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students, being in front of their teacher,” Cardona, Connecticut’s education commissioner, said at his confirmation hearing.
“So we have to do everything we can to safely reopen schools in a manner that gets the students back into their learning environment,” he added.
Cardona, whose family is from Puerto Rico, enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of Connecticut’s public education system. He began his career as fourth-grade teacher in Meriden, in the same district where he attended school. Cardona soon became a principal and then assistant superintendent of the district before being named state commissioner in 2019.
The Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is expected to forward his nomination to the full Senate for confirmation in the coming days.
President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen most K-12 schools within 100 days — an ambitious goal as Covid cases surge and teachers in some places across the country are fighting some plans to reopen.
Teachers’ union leaders, who back Cardona’s nomination, are pleased with Biden’s sense of urgency, but warn that the 100-day reopening timeline may need to be a goal rather than a fixed target.
Vaccinating teachers a priority, not a requirement
Some teachers unions argue that educators need to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.
Video: Teachers fight return to classrooms without proper safety measures (CNN)
When asked about the position of the Fairfax Education Association in Virginia, which has tweeted that there should be vaccines “for all students, families, and staff,” Cardona did not say he agreed with the union group.
“We have great examples throughout our country of schools that are able to reopen safely and do so while following mitigation strategies,” he said, adding that he does believe there needs to be a focus on surveillance Covid testing.
At a White House briefing Wednesday, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that a growing number of studies show that students can return to school safely.
“Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Walensky said.
Reopening schools in Connecticut
Cardona stopped short of calling for any requirements or deadlines for schools to reopen. Instead, he said he would partner with public health experts and provide districts with clear guidance like he did in Connecticut as the state’s education commissioner.
After being in the position for less than a year, Cardona was an early advocate for reopening schools. In June, he told districts to prepare to provide in-person instruction in the fall. Not every school system was able to do so, including the New Haven district, which began reopening in January. As of December, nearly 22% of Connecticut’s students were fully or mostly in-person, 42% were using a hybrid model and 36% were still fully or mostly remote, according to state data.
“He led the effort to reopen Connecticut’s schools earlier than most people thought was possible and he did it in a way that didn’t divide teachers from students and parents,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
Biden is calling for more federal funding
Biden argues that the ability of schools to reopen safely hinges on the resources available. He’s calling on Congress to approve another $170 billion for K-12 schools, colleges and universities to help them operate safely in person or facilitate remote learning, as part of a broader $1.9 trillion Covid relief package.
Many Republicans don’t agree that another $170 billion is needed for schools right now. They’ve proposed providing $20 billion.
Congress previously approved $82 billion in aid for schools in December, which Biden has said he views as a “down payment,” as well as $13 billion last March.
Cardona said the funding proposed by Biden is needed to help schools recover in the long term, including money for school counselors, summer programming, extended days and hiring more teachers.
“If we really want to recover, we need to invest now,” he said.