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‘Politics has no place here’: Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on reopening schools safely

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sat down with Yahoo Finance’s Reggie Wade to discuss how schools are planning to reopen amid a spike in cases and hospitalizations from the delta variant, what difficulties the school system in the United States is facing, and his hopes and his worries for this generation of students.

Video Transcript

REGGIE WADE: Just when you think you have the answers, COVID-19 keeps changing the questions. With millions of students starting or preparing to start a new school year, parents and teachers now have to contend with the Delta variant. Here to talk about these developing issues is the US Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for coming back on Yahoo Finance.

MIGUEL CARDONA: Of course, nice to see you again.

REGGIE WADE: Nice to see you. I want to start with the Delta variant of COVID-19 and, according to the CDC, nearly 1,600 kids were hospitalized last week with COVID-19. How can parents feel confident about sending their children back to school with the rise in infections?

MIGUEL CARDONA: I'm a parent, too, and I'm paying attention. And I want to make sure that when my children return to school, I'm sending them to an environment that's taking all the precautions necessary to keep our children safe, to keep our educators safe, as well. So we know that masking works. We know that when they're eligible, vaccination is the best tool we have across the country. We're fortunate now to be able to have vaccines for students 12 and older and educators. So we know we can do it if we follow the mitigation strategies and we get vaccinated when we're able to.

I recall last year doing this without vaccines, without the testing availability that we have today, without the American Rescue Plan funds to make sure we had what we needed to open schools safely. So I believe we can do it if we follow the mitigation strategies and get vaccinated when we can.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, California and New York will require teachers to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 weekly. Are you in favor of such measures and would you like to see more states do similar policies?

MIGUEL CARDONA: You know, I really want to make sure that our health experts are leading those conversations, making sure that they're communicating the safety around that. For me, the more vaccinated, the better. We have 90% of the teachers across the country that are vaccinated. So I think educators agree that getting vaccinated is the best way to keep themselves safe. For me, it ensures that we're going to keep schools without disruptions. Our students have suffered enough. They've been disrupted enough. Getting vaccinated is the best tool. So when our health experts feel that it's time to move forward in that direction, if that's where they want to go, I would be in support of it.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, we see school boards and districts in Texas and Florida have been battling their respective governors over mask mandates and different policies. What are you hearing from teachers and administrators on the ground in those states?

MIGUEL CARDONA: I'm hearing what I believe. Get out of the way. The politics-- get out of the way. Let teachers do what they do best. Let our educational leaders do what they do best, what they did last year. Safely reopen schools ensuring that students and staff not only are safe but feel safe. Communicate what they're doing to keep our schools safe. Politics has no place here. In fact, some of the decisions that are being made are really putting students in harm's way. And we need to make sure that we're giving our superintendents and our boards the opportunity to do what they do best which is educate our students in an environment that's safe and welcoming for all students.

REGGIE WADE: Last year's schools had to pivot on the fly when it came to virtual learning. Do you believe that US schools now have the proper resources to transition back to online classes, if necessary?

MIGUEL CARDONA: We're a year smarter. There's $130 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to help close the digital divide to ensure that students have access-- the bandwidth but also the device. And I think oftentimes we overlook this third component that's really important-- making sure that they have online quality curriculum that's rigorous so that students are doing quality work when they're remote, if they have to go remote [INAUDIBLE].

Now the goal is to get every student in every day full time, but we know that blended learning is a part of a good comprehensive program. I do believe we have the tools, we have the resources, and we have the know-how to pivot if we have to pivot. But I'm hoping that this year we don't have to do that. I'm hoping we can reopen schools using the mitigation strategies and making sure that students have an in-person learning opportunity.

Because we know the socialization that you get in person is so much better than online. We know that access to warm meals for our students is more accessible when they're going to school online. So that's where our focus is. We don't want to look backwards, but we're prepared if we have to go there.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, are you afraid that this pandemic might affect teacher recruitment in the future? We hear about teacher shortages. Do you think that people are shying away from the profession now?

MIGUEL CARDONA: You know, I think, to be very frank with you, in the profession we've always been asked to do more with less. I've been in education over two decades and it's always, whether I was a teacher or a school principal or a district leader, there are less resources but there's a greater need. Now the president has really started a shift to value educators and to really put education where it belongs in terms of the foundation of our country's growth.

So I do believe, while I understand the frustration that some teachers feel, especially in the areas where they feel under-resourced, there's going to be a resurgence of passion to make sure we're recruiting folks and making sure we're lifting the profession for what it is. It's the foundation of any other profession. So while I understand that there might be some areas where we need to fill, and I have to say that.

The Build Back Better Agenda provides funds for those areas to recruit teachers in special education, in bilingual education. While those strategies are important, I also feel that our educators-- they've bent over backwards. They're being recognized for the strength that they are for this country. And I do think that people are going to think of teaching as a profession moving forward.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, how worried are you about this generation of students going to school during this pandemic?

MIGUEL CARDONA: You know, as a father I saw what it did to my children who are fortunate enough to have both parents. We were able to, last year, have some remote working where we were there with them. They had resources where they had access to technology, access to the device. But I saw the impact it had on their-- the lack of ability to be around their peers and with their teachers in person.

So I know it had an impact. But I also saw resilience. I also saw students that found ways to adapt and connect with one another. And I was fortunate that my children were able to attend last year in person. But I know so many students across the country didn't have that benefit. So I'm not worried about them, but I know that we have to do more to give them that social and emotional connection, that academic recovery support that they need-- not only them, but their families.

I'm not worried about them because I know our schools have the tools, and we have the educators that care about our children and are going to wrap them in love and give them what they need to recover fully from the pandemic and better. It's not good enough to go back to what school was like in March 2020. Our educators across the country have proven that they're going to put students first. And they're going to do what the students need to be successful.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, what's your biggest fear and your biggest hope for this upcoming school year?

MIGUEL CARDONA: I want to reopen school safely. I want to make sure that at the end of the day, every decision we make is guided by health and safety which means that as things change we're going to evolve with it. That's critically important. But my biggest concern, my biggest fear moving forward is complacency. We had major gaps in opportunities and in achievement throughout our schools across the country before the pandemic, and the pandemic made them worse.

And my fear is that we go back to a system that doesn't recognize that we have to do more and that going back to what it was in early 2020 is not sufficient. That system left too many students behind. That system didn't have equal access to college for all students. And I'm excited about that opportunity. So what is a concern is also the greatest opportunity we have-- to hit reset on the things that didn't work in education, to give our students across the country the best opportunity for success, not only in pre-K through grade 12, but also in higher education. We have a lot of work to do, and I'm excited to get to work.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, lastly, I'd love to know what's the biggest lesson that you've learned in your time as Education Secretary?

MIGUEL CARDONA: It just reaffirmed my belief that educators at all levels from the classroom, from the food service workers, the bus drivers, we're all a team. All the way up to the Secretary of Education-- That we all put students first when we need to do. That at the end of the day, when we're in a crisis, we shine brightest. And that we make sure that what we're doing, and the actions that we take, and the decisions that we make have students at the center of it.

That's why-- we saw countless examples of that. At the beginning parts of the pandemic when we were taking our bus routes and finding ways to feed kids that were home, or deliver computers to kids that didn't have it, or deliver hot spots. And then more recently, what we saw in New York, when we had intentional collaboration around reopening schools and adults putting their differences aside and saying, how do we help children? How do we help children? So for me, it just reaffirms the passion that educators have to serve their children and to give them the very best opportunity for success.

REGGIE WADE: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us on Yahoo Finance. Please stay safe.

MIGUEL CARDONA: Take care, same to you.