Joe Biden has formally selected Miguel Cardona as his nominee to lead the Department of Education, which will be tasked with navigating the president-elect’s pledge to reopen most schools within his first 100 days in office as the US emerges from a deadly winter amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The president-elect will unveil a plan to Congress early next year to fund teachers and schools, widespread testing capacity, ventilation systems and more school buses to give students proper physical distancing, all to help “achieve an ambitious but doable goal of safely opening a majority of schools by the end of our first 100 days.”
That plan will also extend to a 100-day mask mandate, which the president can enforce on federal property and interstate travel. He also will issue guidance to state and local governments to implement similar rules.
He also suggested expanding broadband internet access to families who have relied on coffee shops or library parking lots for Wi-Fi during online classes, a gap in access that has “cost some kids a full year in learning,” he said in remarks from Delaware on Wednesday.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “We need to act now.”
Mr Cardona – a former public school teacher and administrator who currently serves as Connecticut’s schools chief – is the third Latino nominee to join the president-elect’s incoming cabinet, which Mr Biden has promised would include a teacher in role as education secretary.
His pick is in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s long-standing cabinet official and billionaire Betsy DeVos, who has been criticised for overseeing the administration’s cuts to public schools and its suspension of civil rights protections for students.
“In this critical moment in our nation’s history, it’s essential that there is an educator serving as Secretary of Education,” Mr Biden said. “The mixed signals from the White House … have left more confusion than calm, and have left so many parents and schools feeling like they’re on their own.”
Mr Biden renewed his commitment to better funding for public schools, including mental health counsellors to help free up educators to focus on teaching, and paying teachers “what they deserve.”
“The work they do is of extreme national importance, and their salary should reflect that,” he said.
Mr Cardona grew up in Connecticut housing projects and taught elementary school in the state’s public school system, where he also served as a principal for 10 years. His two children also attend public school.
As the state’s school commissioner, he has condemned the “education emergency” in the wake of the public health crisis and pushed for in-person instruction in the budget-constrained state, where roughly one-third of public school students are unable to attend school in person full time.
“I know how challenging this year has been for students, educators and parents,” he said on Wednesday. “For so many of our schools and far too many of our parents, this unprecedented year has piled on crisis after crisis.”
He said the pandemic’s impacts have widened existing education disparities and taxed school staff and families adapting to new routines, “and it has stolen time from our children.”
The disparities will “still be with us even when the virus is gone,” he said.
In prepared remarks, he condemned a lack of trade school opportunities and “inaccessible” higher education, as well as a failure to invest in a “wide, strong foundation” of universal early childhood education and social and emotional support for students.
His nomination, supported by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and teachers union, has faced some criticism among teachers who do not feel Mr Biden fulfilled his promise to appoint a teacher to the office. While Mr Cardona does have in-class instruction experience, he has largely worked in administration.
Mr Biden also renewed a pledge to address student debt and subsidize higher-education costs.
The president-elect has proposed free community colleges and tuition-free public colleges for families earning less than $125,000, with income-based student loan repayment plans for borrowers earning annual incomes of $25,000 or less.
He also has proposed wiping out student loan debts over time for people who work in public service.
The president-elect’s administration has faced increasing pressure from Democrats to erase thousands of dollars in student loan debt through executive order directing the Education Secretary and Treasury Department to do so. One proposal among leading congressional Democrats calls for Mr Biden to cancel $50,000 in federally held student debts, while progressives have urged him to cancel all debts through an executive order.
“There’s so much we can do, and we can afford to do it,” he said.
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