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Health, Science and Environment

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona discusses the push to keep schools open

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Will school be open tomorrow? Should school be open tomorrow? And if school is open, will there be enough bus drivers to get kids there and enough teachers in front of the classroom? This is the third calendar year of the pandemic, and the omicron wave has once again forced school systems to rethink how to live and teach with COVID. To talk about that, we are joined now by the U.S. secretary of education, Miguel Cardona. Welcome.

MIGUEL CARDONA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I want to ask about whether we're at a pivot point here because omicron is so widespread now and high percentages of teachers are indeed vaccinated. Is it time now to acknowledge that kids are going to get COVID in school? Like, should the conversation shift towards managing COVID rather than hoping for zero COVID at school? What do you think?

CARDONA: We can't look at our approach today the same way we did in March of 2020.

CHANG: Right.

CARDONA: We have better tools now. Children ages 5 and up are eligible for vaccine. And we saw the impact that students had learning remotely or not being able to attend school. We can do better. We have the tools available; the resources are there. And yes, it's a challenge, and I have to commend educators and leaders across the country. But we - our students deserve the opportunity to learn in person, and we have the tools to keep our schools safe for in-person learning for our students...

CHANG: Right...

CARDONA: ...And for our staffs.

CHANG: And I know that you are pushing for in-person learning. But again, should the conversation shift away from trying to get zero COVID at school or trying to manage COVID infections that will inevitably take place among students?

CARDONA: I believe - what we've known from the beginning is that COVID typically doesn't spread in our schools. It spreads in our community and it comes into our schools. So I agree that we must continue the conversation about how to keep our schools open, managing COVID and not allowing it to disrupt our schools, and understanding that we have to - our default needs to be that our students belong in the classroom. And I think we can do that, and I think we have better tools - as I said - and we should be thinking about ways to keep it from spreading in our schools but recognizing that we can't wait for this to pass for us to get our kids in the classrooms.

CHANG: All right. Well, let's talk about how to keep schools safe right now for in-person learning. I mean, schools are saying they simply don't have enough resources. They don't have enough tests. They don't have enough staff. How do you plan to resolve these shortages right now, these really compelling shortages?

CARDONA: You know, as a former educator, a building principal, I recognize the challenges that our educators are facing across the country, and I recognize that it's tough. But we do have greater resources than ever before. You know, the American Rescue Plan provided $130 billion, and those funds could be used to hire additional staff, to incentivize bus drivers to come back into the profession if they've left it or educators...

CHANG: That takes a lot of time, right? I mean, what advice do you have for district leaders who don't have enough bus drivers now, who don't have enough adults now to teach class? They need more humans now, not more money. They need the humans now.

CARDONA: Well, what we've seen from the beginning is districts across the country have good testing protocols. They do have strategy to have more additional staff members in their buildings. And I think what we're seeing today, yesterday, is as people come back from their vacations or from their breaks, they're finding that they have COVID. I do anticipate that, with the use of mitigation strategies, we will be able to have our staff in, and I'm really pleased that the new guidance with - from CDC prevents so much quarantining when we know it's not necessary to safely reopen our schools. So I anticipate that that's going to improve our ability to staff our schools.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the season we're in right now - winter. It poses a huge challenge in many parts of the country, obviously because of lunch. It can be really very challenging to eat outside in many regions in this country. Ventilation is hard inside. What's your advice there?

CARDONA: My advice would be the same - what I've seen since March 2020 - using our space differently in our schools, ensuring adequate spacing between students, using building spaces differently - cafeterias, media centers, classrooms. It's not ideal. I recognize it's not ideal. But the alternative is having students learning from home, maybe not accessing internet - good internet access, not having access to meals in some cases. We can do it. It's not ideal, but we can do it. There are greater resources to get it done. And I've seen great examples across the country of where it can be done. Ninety-nine percent of our students across the country have access to in-person learning despite this omicron uptick. We have to stay focused. We have to give those students the opportunity to stay learning in the classroom.

CHANG: I am curious - you said you've seen great examples. Can you point to states or districts that you think are managing the current situation very well at the moment? What are they doing right specifically, and where?

CARDONA: Well, you know, I'd like to lift up what I heard from the commissioner of education today from Vermont. Sixty percent of the students have been vaccinated. That means that, you know, it was all hands on deck. They're well above the average, and what they've done is really partner with communities, with local leadership, state leadership to get vaccines in the arms of students to protect them and the communities. And what that means is that they're not going to be relying on tests to keep kids in school because we know that if students are exposed to COVID-19, they have a five-day quarantine, then they can return. So it's strategies like that that I'd like to lift.

In Tennessee, they're doing a great job recruiting and getting more staff members in the schools to have additional human resource capital to allow for schools to stay open. There are great examples out there. I'm sure every state has specific examples of what they're doing really well. And I - you know, this is an opportunity for us to look at the resources that we have from the federal government, from the state government, be innovative and really work in partnership with our community partners and our families - who have also had to suffer a lot because of their schedule changes - to really give our kids the best opportunity to learn in the classroom.

CHANG: Well, in the 30 seconds or so we have left, if you could speak directly to parents who are wondering right now whether it is safe to send their kids to school, what questions do you think they should be asking their district leaders?

CARDONA: Well, I'm a parent also, so I'll put my parent hat on, and I'll say to them what I know to be true. If our schools are following the mitigation strategies that they're supposed to be following, if I've given my children an opportunity to get vaccinated, and if I talk to them openly about the importance of protecting themselves and others, they'll have the best opportunity to succeed in the classroom, and they can do it safely.

CHANG: That is the U.S. secretary of education, Miguel Cardona. Thank you very much for joining us today.

CARDONA: All right, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVAL CONSOLES' "THEM IS US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.