Parents, faculty and staff from the Dekalb County School District welcomed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Friday to talk about the upcoming school year.

Cardona visited Kelley Lake Elementary, highlighting the school’s efforts to improve its ventilation system as students prepare to return to the classroom. Funding for the upgrades came from the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in March.

Georgia schools recently received the final $1.4 billion installment of the $4.2 billion in coronavirus relief funds. Cardona said he wants communities to continue engaging and investing in students long term.

“Let’s not lose that sense of urgency that our babies need to address achievement disparities," Cardona said. “Make sure all students have access to two- and four-year colleges. Make sure that we have good early childhood programming, so students are not coming into first grade already behind.”

Systemic inequalities have made virtual learning a challenge and have increased learning gaps for some students. Cardona said he sees infrastructure as a lever for equity and that making these changes facilitates better learning and career outcomes in the future.

The visit included a roundtable talk with parents and community members about their concerns. They each said part of the reason they felt comfortable sending their children back to school was the amount of safety measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dekalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said the federal funding has allowed her to focus on making long-term decisions for student wellness.

“We’re really thinking about how we use some of those funds to accelerate learning for our youngest scholars that might have started behind in the past," Watson-Harris said. “And then really to look not only at the academics, but also the social, emotional and the wraparound services that we know our children deserve and need as a result of the trauma, loss, and some of the other challenges that they may have experienced as a result of the pandemic.”

DCSD is among a short list of school districts that will require masks for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The others include Atlanta Public Schools and Clayton County School District. The remaining seven largest school districts, Forsyth County, Cherokee County, Gwinnett County, Cobb County, Fulton County, Henry County, and Savannah-Chatham will not require masks.