US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Wednesday projected optimism that the fall will bring a school year that looks “more like what it was before Covid,” but stressed that his focus remains on resuming in-person learning this spring.
“My focus really right now is getting as many schools open — pre-K through eight schools — in the first 100 days, but also trying to get those high schools open so that we can get all students back in safely, and engaging with their friends and learning in the classroom, where they learn best,” Cardona told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview.
The secretary added that students across the country have shown an “inspiring” level of resilience during the pandemic and maintained that there would be a renewed focus on mental health following the passage of President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan.
“We need to make sure that through this American Rescue Plan we utilize those resources to provide intervention and support, not only with the academic but almost more importantly the social and emotional needs that our students are going to come to school with,” Cardona said.
The comments build on his confirmation hearing vow to do everything in his power to reopen schools safely, an issue that has become a national flashpoint in recent weeks as US vaccine distribution ramps up. The President has set a goal of reopening a majority of schools in the US for in-person learning within his first 100 days in office, and earlier this month he urged the states to prioritize teachers and school staff to get at least initial immunizations by the end of March.
The Department of Education announced on Wednesday the amount of stimulus funds from the America Rescue Plan that it plans to give each state from the $122 billion allotted to K-12 schools. The Department of Health and Human Services also said Wednesday that it will provide an additional $10 billion toward Covid-19 testing for students, teachers and school staff.
Cardona said Wednesday that he didn’t anticipate mandating vaccines for teachers in order to reopen schools but emphasized that “prioritizing vaccinations will only assist with that.”
“My experience was when schools had to close it wasn’t because of Covid spread within the schools — it was because we had to quarantine educators, we had to quarantine teachers,” he told NBC. “Having the vaccination will help keep our doors open — it’s not only about opening schools, it’s really about making sure they stay open.”
Earlier Wednesday, Cardona declined to say whether the Biden administration would mandate vaccinations for teachers returning to work at some point, telling reporters in the briefing room: “At this point vaccination is available for educators.”
“I’m proud that the President prioritized educators to be vaccinated, because we know that when that’s not the case, it’s more likely that schools will close due to quarantining,” he added.
The director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, previously told CNN that while she’s a “strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccine,” the agency doesn’t believe it’s a prerequisite for schools to be able to reopen.
Walensky said earlier on Wednesday that the CDC plans to issue new guidance allowing less social distancing in schools. She said the agency is looking at studies that indicate physical distancing of 3 feet is sufficient to keep students and teachers safe in school.
Cardona said at the news briefing that if the CDC does update its guidance to allow for less social distancing in schools, it would potentially get more students in classrooms.
“If it does go to 3 feet, it’ll provide more opportunities, potentially, for students to enter our schools, which is the goal,” Cardona told reporters.