Public school closures since the coronavirus pandemic erupted last March have done tremendous harm to schoolchildren — to their educational progress, social skills, and even mental health. President Biden’s nominee for secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, inherits a thankless but necessary task: using the power of the federal government to push schools to reopen as quickly as possible. Kids are owed a quality education, even in the face of adversity, and too many American school districts still aren’t providing it.
Schools closed for understandable reasons. Many teachers, and plenty of parents, worry about the safety of crammed hallways and classrooms. But since then, scientific studies and the record of districts and private schools that have resumed in-person classes, have made clear that it’s possible to reopen schools with sensible precautions like masks and social distancing. And that was before vaccines became available: The arrival of two highly effective vaccines, and the decision of many states to put teachers close to the head of the line for shots, should make the case for reopening even clearer.
And yet, more than 40 percent of American kids are still doing remote-only schooling, according to a Bloomberg report. That’s no substitute for in-person instruction, and all these months of Zoom learning are setting kids back. The learning loss is especially acute for Black and Latino students, and for students with disabilities who’ve been cut off from sources of support.
Cardona, the commissioner of education in Connecticut, seems to understand the central importance of getting kids back in classrooms. While Massachusetts struggled to reopen its schools, nearly every district in its southern neighbor reopened for at least some in-person learning this year. Although the federal government typically plays a relatively small role in the day-to-day operation of K-12 schools, Cardona ought to take national the approach he used in Connecticut.
The challenges are immense. In Chicago, the third-largest district in the nation, teachers are refusing to go back to work. Unions across the country have resisted in-person teaching. It took a spate of student suicides in Las Vegas to prompt that district to finally make plans to reopen.
One of the central problems is that school reopening decisions have become unduly politicized, in part because reopenings had been urged so strongly by former education secretary Betsy DeVos, a longstanding bête noire for teachers unions. Cardona doesn’t have the same baggage. Biden’s nominee, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, lived in public housing as a child and spoke only Spanish when he entered kindergarten. He is a product of public education and a former fourth-grade teacher who went on to become Connecticut’s youngest principal ever, at 28 years old. He holds a master’s degree in bilingual/bicultural education and a doctorate in education. Cardona has been the state’s education commissioner since 2019. His nomination as secretary of education was praised by national teachers unions and pro education reform groups alike. Such consensus in the education world is rare.
Since the summer, Cardona made it his focus to reopen local districts in Connecticut safely. Cardona provided school districts with safety guidelines to reopen but ultimately let them decide individually when to do so. He also has used the bully pulpit to urge a quick return to the classroom by underscoring that the most disadvantaged students — Black, Latino, and low-income kids — are bearing the brunt of learning loss during virtual schooling.
Even though Connecticut’s teachers unions have pushed back on reopenings, they praised Cardona. “He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic,” the unions said in a joint statement when Biden announced his nomination. “While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration.”
Biden was elected with strong support from labor and, unlike his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, evinces little appetite for butting heads with teachers unions. But he has also vowed to make school reopening a priority during his first 100 days in office. He has signed an order for his administration to issue guidance on school reopenings and to track how many American students nationwide are still learning remotely versus in person; and he’s asking Congress for more than $100 billion in additional funding for schools. Biden and his administration should also make it clear to states that they should prioritize vaccination for teachers.
Cardona’s first order of business is to lead that effort. His work last year in Connecticut shows he can use his bully pulpit to get the job done at a time when political tensions and teachers unions — not science or local health conditions — have been driving decision-making about when to return to the classroom. With thousands of parents abandoning public schools in favor of homeschooling or private education, and a generation of the most vulnerable kids falling further behind, it wouldn’t be hyperbole for Cardona to insist that the future of public education depends on reopening as fast as possible.
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