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Students Need To Be In Classrooms, With Masks, This Fall, Education Secretary Says

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visits a summer program at a Los Angeles school in mid-July.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visits a summer program at a Los Angeles school in mid-July.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has a message for schools across the country ahead of the new school year: Students need to be in classrooms.

"That's where students learn best," Cardona told NPR's A Martínez. "Schools are more than just places where students learn how to read and write — they're communities. They're like second families to our students."

On Monday, the U.S. Education Department will release a roadmap for the return to school, encouraging districts to invest in social and emotional support for students and outlining ways to "accelerate academic achievement."

The roadmap also recommends that school systems follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's masking guidance for K-12 schools, which the agency revised last week, recommending "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status."

Mask mandate bans will make it hard for some schools to follow the roadmap

Following those masking recommendations will be next to impossible for some districts where state legislators have stepped in. Texas, South Carolina and Iowa have all passed laws banning schools from requiring students and staff to wear masks. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said last week that the CDC's recommendations wouldn't change that. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted that "personal responsibility" was the answer.

"I know that there are some folks making decisions that are less based on science and more on their ideology," Cardona said. "But at the end of the day, our educators, their job is to make sure our students are OK. We have to make sure that we're following mitigation strategies and creating safe learning environments for students."

It's on schools to communicate with hesitant families about the steps they're taking, Cardona said. If they're not taking the right steps, "what's going to happen is those families that don't feel comfortable will not be sending their children to school."

Cardona added that he knows some school leaders are "going to be running up against challenges from elected officials. And that's sad and that's unfortunate."

South Carolina's largest school district, Greenville County Schools, is strongly encouraging mask wearing — but district spokesperson Tim Waller said that's about all they can do to get students and staff to use face coverings. "The legislature has passed a number of provisos which have tied the hands of school districts in South Carolina," he said. If cases rise or high numbers of students and staff must quarantine, "It is my hope that elected officials who have placed these restrictions on public school districts in South Carolina will do the right thing and ease up on some of those restrictions."

Cardona said the department is having daily conversations with governors and elected officials about best practices — but "in those places where they're most resistant, that's where we're seeing the most spread of COVID-19."

Meanwhile, public health leaders are warning Americans about the fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus. On Friday, the CDC published data showing that vaccinated people infected with the delta variant are just as likely as unvaccinated people to spread the virus to others.

"I don't have to tell you, the rising delta variant is creating some concern across the country," Cardona said. But he added, "We know that mask wearing and mitigation strategies allow [schools] to reopen safely." If increased spread of the virus prohibits schools from reopening in person, he said, "to me, that's a failure of adults."

Schools should "hit the reset button" this fall

The roadmap also recommends that school leaders encourage and provide access to vaccination for all eligible students and staff members.

Vaccines are currently approved for children 12 years old and up — so, regardless of how many students and families heed public health advice, elementary schools will be filled with unvaccinated students at the start of school. And while most middle school-age students are eligible for the vaccine, just 28% of the country's 12- to 15-year-olds were fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to data from the CDC.

Vaccinated or not, Cardona said students need to be able to return to classrooms, where they have access to school meals and "where they can access the social and emotional support and mental health support professionals that are available in the school."

That social-emotional support is another area the department is encouraging schools to invest in with the pandemic relief funding provided by the federal government. "I would be as concerned about the social and emotional well-being of our students as much as the academic loss," Cardona said.

Schools have an opportunity "to hit the reset button" — but he worried the one thing holding them back is "complacency."

"You know, before the pandemic, we had wide opportunity gaps in our country," Cardona said. "We had the cost of college preventing people from thinking about college because they didn't want to be buried in debt. We must do better."

For Cardona, that future might include some expanded remote learning options for students. "But post pandemic, I really feel like students need to be in a classroom learning with their peers, engaging with an educator in person."

That's what many school leaders are focused on right now. Still, in-person school is a complicated goal when, in many places, the desires of state leaders, public health officials and families all look different.

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