WASHINGTON — With only weeks before schools reopen in much of the country, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Thursday at the White House that while the Delta variant of the coronavirus is “providing new challenges,” he still anticipates a return to in-class instruction.
“We expect our students to be in the classroom every day," Cardona said from the White House Briefing Room, as he and other administration officials embark on a campaign to convince the American public that schools are safe. To do that, he will have to keep powerful teachers' unions in line while persuading Republican governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas to allow school districts to impose mask mandates. Both governors have strenuously resisted such measures, even as their states are pummeled by the Delta variant.
“Politics don’t have a role in this,” Cardona said, an apparent plea to conservative governors to drop their mask resistance. One who has done so is Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who said this week he regretted signing a mask ban into law. He now wants school districts to make their own mask rules, but needs legislative support to amend the ban.
Despite the challenges recent weeks have presented, Cardona expressed confidence about the new school year. “It’s all hands on deck here,” he said.
"The resources are there, and the urgency is there," he added later.
About $130 billion in President Biden’s coronavirus relief package was devoted to the nation’s schools, a figure he and other administration officials cite frequently as a reminder of sorts to educators that they have gotten what they’ve asked for. (Some educators maintain, however, that the recent largesse cannot compensate for decades of underfunding of public education.)
Those funds have been used to make upgrades to crumbling buildings with ancient ventilation systems, hire teachers and support staff and make other preparations for a school year that many hope will achieve some sense of normalcy.
The Delta variant has called such hopes into question. Although 90 percent of American teachers are vaccinated, children under 12 — for whom remote learning is bound to be more difficult than it is for their older peers — are not yet authorized by the Food and Drug Administration to receive inoculations.
“After declining in early summer, child cases have steadily increased in July,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a pandemic update published at the end of July.
The increased transmissibility of the new variant has led to concerns that teachers' unions could argue that in-person instruction is too risky, as they did for much of 2020 and the first several months of 2021, their resistance not diminishing until late spring.
Conservatives have seized on a recent remark by Randi Weingarten, head of the influential American Federation of Teachers, that her members would try to open schools this fall. Weingarten had previously come out in favor of in-person instruction, but neither she nor Cardona has control over what local union chapters decide.
“All teachers want schools reopened,” Cardona said on Thursday.
Numerous studies have shown that schools do not act as sites of intensive viral transmission, especially if teachers and students wear masks. Conversely, research indicates that remote learning not only is ineffective but can lead to social isolation among children.
Before becoming the federal education secretary, Cardona was the superintendent of Connecticut public schools. He was widely celebrated for reopening schools safely in that state for the 2020-21 school year, something that officials in other Democratic-led states failed to do.
Whereas unions present one potential problem, Republican governors represent another. Even as the coronavirus ravages their states, Abbott of Texas and DeSantis of Florida have both signed measures preventing school districts from enacting mask mandates. Some districts are moving ahead with such mandates regardless, setting up a potential battle with the White House.
DeSantis was celebrated for opening schools last year, but his intense resistance to masking has been the subject of criticism. His mask resistance appears calculated to curry favor with libertarians and conservatives, whose support he will need if he runs for the presidency in 2024, as he is widely expected to do.
“Don't be the reason why schools are interrupted,” Cardona said during the White House briefing on Thursday, urging governors to “let our educators educate, let our school leaders lead.”
Florida and Texas accounted for a third of all new coronavirus cases last week, and teachers in both states are nervous. “We’re running into a situation where we are literally losing our workforce,” one superintendent told Politico, referencing two deaths and 15 new cases in her district.
“They've suffered enough,” Cardona said of American children. “It's time for them to be in the classroom without disruption to their learning.”
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