Students learn best in classrooms, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona tells NPR — but "we have to make sure that we're following mitigation strategies."



President Biden wants kids back in the classroom. His administration is announcing today that he's sending his secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, around the country this fall to help make it happen. The Department of Education is also releasing what it calls a road map to help schools navigate that reopening safely and convince parents it's time to send their kids back into the nation's public schools. Secretary Cardona admits there are challenges ahead.

MIGUEL CARDONA: The rising delta variant is creating some concern across the country. But we know we can do it safely if we follow the mitigation strategies. And part of the road map is to just make clear what we know works.

MARTINEZ: I spoke with Secretary Cardona about how the rapid rise in cases across the U.S. just as schools are about to start could derail the administration's efforts.

What are you worried about the most if, say, the delta variant accelerates and reopenings don't go as planned? Are you more concerned with the social element that kids might be missing out on or the learning they could be missing out on?

CARDONA: You know, I would be most worried about why it's spreading. We know what works. We know that vaccinations help reduce transmission. We know that mask-wearing and mitigation strategies allow students to reopen safely. So if our schools don't reopen with in-person learning, to me that's a failure of adults, not because the transmission is presenting something that we can't address. But with regard to disruptive learning, I would be as concerned about the social and emotional well-being of our students as much as the academic loss. You know, the Biden team and Congress passed $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan to give the tools to make sure that our schools are safe. It's on us to make sure that we're doing what we need to do for our students.

MARTINEZ: I'm going to get to that money in just a second, but I want to know what your message would be, Secretary, to parents who do not feel safe about sending their kids back to public classrooms.

CARDONA: You know, I would tell the parent - talk to the educators, talk to the school principal, learn what the school is doing to keep your children safe and have confidence that if they're following the mitigation strategies that we know work, your children will be OK. I worry about the emotional well-being of students when they're not in school. So I think parents have to weigh that out as well.

MARTINEZ: You say, though, Secretary, to have confidence, but I mean, in low-income communities - I'm sure you know this - many families have been hit very hard by COVID already. And they may live in multigenerational households, work frontline jobs and have trouble maybe accessing vaccines. They've seen neighborhood public schools neglected for decades, so why wouldn't their fears about COVID in the classroom be legit?

CARDONA: Right. And I recognize the hesitancy, but those were conversations that we were having last July, last August. This year, the funds are there to make sure ventilation systems are improved. The transmission rates in many parts of our country is lower because of the vaccination. We have schools providing vaccines in their schools. I understand that there's a little bit of fear or hesitation, but again, I'll tell those communities to communicate with the families, especially of those families who were traumatized most severely by the pandemic, and then be prepared to welcome those students and those families and meet them where they are.

MARTINEZ: Let's talk a bit about what you're advising school districts to do to keep classrooms safe in the fall. Several state legislatures have already passed laws prohibiting school districts from requiring masks in school. So what should school superintendents do to keep their students safe in those particular places?

CARDONA: Right. When it comes to safety, we know that adherence to the mitigation strategies works. And I'm asking all educators and school leaders and district leaders to do what they know is going to help their children be safe. I know that there are some folks making decisions that are less based on science, more on their ideology. But at the end of the day, our educators, their job is to make sure our students are OK, and we have to make sure that we're following mitigation strategies and creating safe learning environments for students, or what's going to happen is those families that don't feel comfortable will not be sending their children to school.

MARTINEZ: What if those mitigation strategies are not allowed in a particular state? I watched on television the Texas State Teachers Association president almost plead and beg Governor Greg Abbott to - in an interview, to allow for masks to possibly be mandated if a school district in Texas feels that they need them, if there is an outbreak. What do you suggest to educators in those situations?

CARDONA: Well, listen; we're going to keep our students safe. Teachers are going to do what's right. If that means communicating with families, schools must communicate with families to say why they're asking students to do this. And I understand that they're going to be running up against challenges from elected officials, and that's sad, and that's unfortunate. But at the end of the day, the other options are, if there's a spread in the school, are we going to close the school? Do we want to miss football games? Do we want to miss extracurricular activities because of a law that's putting our students in harm's way? So I know educators are going to make the right decisions, and I know parents are going to make the right decisions. I think we need to keep the politics out of it and do what worked.

MARTINEZ: But if educators are not allowed to make those decisions, can you put any pressure on states in any way to allow for that to happen?

CARDONA: We are having conversations daily with governors, with elected officials to make sure that we're communicating the importance of following the rules, following what works. And we're making progress, but, you know, in those places where they're most resistant, that's where we're seeing the most spread of COVID-19. So unfortunately, what might end up happening is we're going to have school closures where they don't need to close.

MARTINEZ: Public school districts have received a lot of funding from the COVID relief bills Congress passed to help with reopening. What's the most impactful thing that districts can do with that money right now, you think?

CARDONA: The most impactful strategies that I've seen in my visits to different states are, No. 1, ensuring that the building is safe as well. I visited Georgia, and I saw improved ventilation systems with better airflow, and while that's not something you can see when you walk into a building, it makes a big difference. In a lot of these older schools, those systems haven't been upgraded in years. We're also seeing an investment in additional support staff to help our students and our educators come back post-pandemic and post-traumatic experience, right? So more guidance counselors, more school social workers. We're seeing better class sizes because there's additional teachers available. We're seeing districts invest in staff that are going to go out and knock on doors to ensure that families have what they need to safely return to school.

MARTINEZ: Now, as you travel around the country, will you be tailoring your message to address local differences in things we've talked about, like mask prohibitions, vaccine rates, COVID spread?

CARDONA: Definitely. I think one of the things I learned - you know, I was a commissioner for the first part of the pandemic and now secretary of education. One thing that I learned is we, as educational leaders, have to adapt as well. We have to make sure we're addressing what the needs are, what the concerns are. And not only with the COVID spread, right? We're seeing variations, which mean we have to go backward with some of the progress we made in terms of now we're requiring masks or we're strongly suggesting masks in places that have high spread, but we also have to adapt to what's happening politically. And unfortunately, this year, unlike last year, there's a lot more partisan interpretation of what's best for students, and so that's going to change my message - to make sure that this isn't a red or blue issue; this is about students.

MARTINEZ: What's keeping you up at night? As we get closer and closer to the beginning of the school year, what's the thing that you're most worried about that you can't stop thinking about?

CARDONA: Complacency. Complacency. We need to do better. We need to make sure that the school systems that our students return to are better than the schools before the pandemic. You know, before the pandemic, we had wide opportunity gaps in our country. We had the cost of college preventing people from thinking about college because they didn't want to be buried in debt. We must do better, and we have an opportunity here to hit the reset button. The only thing that's holding us back is complacency. So I'm hoping that we move in with a sense of urgency, and we continue that to give all students across the country the best opportunity to succeed.

MARTINEZ: That's Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Thank you very much.

CARDONA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.