New Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says ‘reopen schools.’ Here’s where he stands on other key issues

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is officially the new point person for American education — at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The Senate confirmed Cardona’s appointment Monday after the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions advanced his nomination in February. Cardona, 45, is rising from his post as Connecticut’s commissioner of education and taking control of American schooling at a fraught time.

Debates about when and how to reopen K-12 classrooms have pitted teachers, administrators, school boards and parents against each other. Colleges are bleeding money. Student debt is mounting. Learners are struggling to keep up with classes online.

Congress is debating another enormous coronavirus relief package that, if passed as proposed by President Joe Biden, would send $130 billion to schools.

Cardona has personal experience with most of the pressing matters in K-12 and higher education, as he’s a first-generation college student, a former teacher and administrator, a father of school-age children. Here’s where he stands on key issues:

Schools can reopen, Cardona says

About 72% of U.S. students attend schools offering full or partial in-person learning, according to Burbio, a company that aggregates school calendars. About 27% attend schools with virtual-only instruction, a figure that’s dropped in recent weeks as larger districts inch toward reopening.

Many large teachers unions had pushed back against opening classrooms because they don’t trust their districts could do it safely. But more deals have been struck now. After a long dispute in Chicago, traditional elementary and middle school students have the option to return to class. Philadelphia officials just announced plans to start bringing back students for in-person learning next week. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers negotiated additional money for districts to bring students back for in-person learning by April 1, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Union pushback: These parents want their kids back in school. Teachers are wary.

Schools can reopen safely without all teachers being vaccinated against COVID-19, Cardona said at his confirmation hearing Feb. 3, a sentiment echoed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released updated school reopening guidelines last month.

New CDC guidelines: Teacher vaccinations are not a must, 6 feet separation advised

Cardona said schools need more resources to reopen and to provide extended learning opportunities. Teachers should be able to get vaccinated swiftly – at public and private schools, he said at the hearing.

“There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students,” Cardona said, adding that he’d bring a “mentality of partnership and clear communication to help recover our public education and reopen our schools.”

In-person school can be safe: CDC reports how schools with little COVID-19 spread are making it work

Schools must give standardized tests this spring

States must administer annual achievement exams this year, but they can be delayed or modified, and schools won’t necessarily have to test remote learners, the Department of Education said last week.

Former education secretary Betsy DeVos and her team waived federally mandated state testing in 2020.

Cardona hedged on the issue in his confirmation hearing, saying it’s important to test students for a guidepost on how far they’ve progressed academically, but that remote learning presents major hurdles.

“If the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person, I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them,” Cardona said.

Standardized testing:The exams will feel different this year, and many students won’t take them

Federal law requires states to give annual standardized achievement exams in reading and math to students in grades 3-8 and once to those in high school, and to report the results. .

Before the pandemic, a school’s low scores on state exams could trigger anything from additional money for improvements to additional scrutiny from the state or federal government – or the public. States will have to report results from this next round of exams, but they won’t carry the weight of consequences for schools or teachers, the latest federal guidance says.

"There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students," education nominee Miguel Cardona says during a hearing Feb. 3 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“There is no substitute for a classroom experience for our students,” education nominee Miguel Cardona says during a hearing Feb. 3 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Increasing support for English learners, community colleges

Cardona stressed that he’s in favor of strategies to help disadvantaged children get ahead, such as increasing opportunities for students to take college classes in high school, expanding support for English learners and encouraging more pathways to college and technical careers.

Cardona has repeatedly praised the work of community colleges, calling them “the nation’s best-kept secret” in his hearing. Biden said he would push for legislation making two-year programs tuition-free.

Student enrollment has sunk at these institutions during the pandemic, which is likely to hurt their long-term finances.

Cardona said community colleges would be important for economic rebuilding.

“They serve the community, it’s in the name,” Cardona said at his hearing. “What we need to do more is make those programs more available and accessible earlier for our learners.”

A focus on civil rights, LGBTQ students

“We’re going to make sure learning environments are places that will be free of harassment for LGBTQ students,” Cardona said at his hearing.

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Robert Griggs of Jensen Beach, Fla., speaks up for his transgender son during a Martin County School Board discussion regarding a proposal to slate October as LGBTQ+ History Month on Oct. 6, 2020.

Robert Griggs of Jensen Beach, Fla., speaks up for his transgender son during a Martin County School Board discussion regarding a proposal to slate October as LGBTQ+ History Month on Oct. 6, 2020.

The Department of Education sets guidance for how schools and districts should handle issues around civil rights and equity for children, but there’s long been debate about the proper scope of that guidance.

Under the Obama administration, the Office of Civil Rights collected data from schools about systemic issues, such as racial inequities in discipline. Under the Trump administration, DeVos and her team focused more on investigating individual civil rights complaints against schools.

Big-picture data-gathering would probably ramp up under a Cardona administration. The Education Department announced a national survey to track how school districts offer instruction this year, with enrollment and attendance rates by race, income, disability and English learner status.

All the plans that are missing

Cardona will need to provide plans on other topics, such as how to handle sexual assault complaints on campuses, whether student loan debts should be forgiven and how far to go in guiding plans for helping students catch up academically.

Students from vulnerable backgrounds – those who are low-income or racial minorities or have special learning needs – were more likely to fall behind, not graduate and not pursue a post-secondary education even before the pandemic, studies show.

“We will boldly address educational inequities head on,” Cardona said at his hearing.

Now he’ll need to start providing the specifics.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on COVID, school reopening

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