Cardona: 'Lot of work' left to reopen schools, fix COVID-19's damage to students

The COVID-19 outbreak that shut down in-person teaching exposed many of the U.S.’s educational weaknesses, according to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who insisted there was still “a lot of work” to do to repair the damage left behind by the pandemic.

On a whistle-stop tour to promote the reopening of schools, Cardona said that parents, teachers and officials must now focus on the tough tasks that lie ahead, as students gradually make their way back into classrooms.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in the pandemic. It brought out the things that we really need to focus on because they’re worse,” Cardona told Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of an event at White Plains High School in New York on Friday. He was responding to a question about where the U.S. education system would be a year from now.

He issued a call for improving access to college, making it more affordable, and tackling the widening achievement gap. 

The Education Secretary also said students should “have access to high quality learning in the classroom. Really removing those inequities and making sure all students have the opportunity to succeed in life.” Cardona also pushed for “good training programs and workforce development options” that would give school kids more options.

“So those are some of the goals I want to make sure that we’re addressing, some of those societal ills that we’re dealing with,” he said. 

“I want to make sure that our schools are places where students can think freely and openly discuss and lead. Because if we listen to our students they are always going to lead us in the right direction,” Cardona added.

…when you sit down with intentional collaboration and make it about what’s best for kids, what’s best for the community, good things happen."Miguel Cardona, Education Secretary

Cardona’s visit to the suburbs just outside of New York City was part of the Biden administration’s “Help is Here” tour to mark the reopening of schools. The visits aim to support states and localities in helping parents, teachers and students return to in-person learning.

Cardona held up the school and its district as a model and example for schools across the U.S., as he underscored how vast amounts of stimulus are being used to support in-person learning.

In March, President Biden announced that $81 billion in aid allocated under the American Rescue Plan would be released to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. According to the Department of Education, an additional $41 billion in ARP funding will become available to states after reopening plans are approved by the DoE, bringing the total amount of funds slated for school re-openings to $122 billion.

The department also plans to distribute $800 million in ARP funds to help support the needs of students experiencing homelessness, with $200 million of said funds being distributed starting Monday.

White Plains serves just over 7,000 students across seven schools. Temperature checks, fully masked staff and students, plexiglass partitions between desks are just some of the COVID-19 mitigation measures put in place in the school district.

The district boasts a 90% in-person attendance at the elementary level, and 70% at the high school level. Cardona said that was the result of “intentional collaboration.”

“The takeaway reinforces that when you sit down with intentional collaboration and make it about what’s best for kids, what’s best for the community, good things happen,” the official said on Friday.

White Plains High School also boasts a diverse student body, with 55% of the student body being Latino, 25% white, 15% Black, 3% are Asian. Meanwhile, over half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, underscoring the region’s economic disparity.

Cardona was joined by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who told Yahoo Finance that when it comes to school reopenings, relationships, and resources matter.

The AFT, the 2nd largest teacher’s union in the country, has found itself increasingly at-odds with state, local and federal officials calling for a faster return to schools. Weingarten, who has come under fire for her vocal resistance to a fuller reopening, said that relationship-building was critical.

“If you have the relationships and if you have the resources, you can build a better tomorrow,” she said. “People have to see it, they have to feel it and in the aftermath of this pandemic, they’ve got to touch it.”

Weingarten said that Cardona’s tour created optimism over what the future could look like.

“What happened in White Plains is that the relationships and the working together and the respect of the professionals together with management and labor, and the school board were all key. But was also key, was an understanding that in-person learning was a key ingredient for student success,” said Weingarten.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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