RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What's it going to take to get all schools open for full-time in-person learning this fall? President Biden hopes prioritizing teachers for vaccines will help. Here's what he said Tuesday.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My challenge to all states, territories and the District of Columbia is this - we want every educator, school staff member, child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.
MARTIN: But even if all teachers are vaccinated in coming weeks, the vast majority of schools don't have the space to implement the social distancing guidelines currently set out by the CDC. Managing the education crisis brought on by the pandemic is now the job of Miguel Cardona, who has just been confirmed as the new education secretary. He's put out a plan to help get schools open. That includes a national summit later this month. And he joins us now. Secretary Cardona, thanks so much for being here.
MIGUEL CARDONA: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: As we just heard, President Biden challenged states to give a vaccine shot to every educator and school staff member before the end of this month. How do you compel states to make that happen?
CARDONA: I applaud that charge. First of all, it is our shared goal to reopen schools safely and quickly. You know, I haven't met an educator that doesn't agree that students learn best in school. And they really want our students to be learning in schools. So it's just a matter of implementing it in a manner that is expeditious and is aimed at really reopening schools quickly.
MARTIN: Although the CDC says vaccinating teachers is not a requirement for opening schools safely.
CARDONA: You're right, Rachel. I can tell you from my experience in Connecticut, where over 90% of the students have an opportunity to learn in person today and many students were learning in person before the vaccine was even approved, it can be done with the mitigation strategies, a careful adherence to the mitigation strategies and close monitoring and, where necessary, quarantining and closing if the numbers escalate to the point where you can't safely assure students are in schools. However, we know that vaccination is a strategy that can just accelerate safe school reopening.
MARTIN: Is part of this just making teachers and staff comfortable with the idea of getting back in the classroom?
CARDONA: We know that there has to be a culture of trust, understanding, transparency. It's really making sure that there's an understanding and a level of trust and comfort to reopen schools safely. And I think that's really why the American Rescue Plan is important because it's going to ensure that we have those technical strategies, those - the ability to modify schools and provide the PPEs that are needed. It gives us an opportunity to really address that digital divide once and for all and provide the long-term needs. This is not just about turning on the lights, not just about unlocking the doors and letting students in. This is about recovering and making sure we're providing that important social, emotional development and support that our students need after experiencing a trauma like we just faced.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the the physical upgrades that would need to happen. I mean, if we're talking about getting kids in school full-time in person by the fall, I mean, the CDC recommends a physical distance of at least 6 feet between students. So it doesn't matter how many teachers to get back into schools. If schools don't have the physical space to meet that guideline, it's not going to happen. Is that guideline going to change?
CARDONA: You know, first - I heard you say fall. We really need to reopen schools quickly and safely as soon as possible. And distancing is critically important. As you know, that's one of the strategies that we've been working with and we see in those districts that are successful bringing students back in. So following those mitigation strategies is critical in ensuring that, again, with the American Rescue Plan, we have the resources needed to expand and provide those environments that our students need to have safe in-person learning.
MARTIN: So does that mean putting money into building bigger schools across this country or is the requirement for 6 feet of social distancing going to be amended?
CARDONA: I know that some of the funds can be earmarked for providing staffing if you are spreading students out or using different parts of the building differently. So, for example, yesterday in my visit with the first lady to Ben Franklin School in Marion, Conn., I saw that the gymnasium was converted for part of the day into a classroom. So that takes resources. And fortunately, with the warm weather we can have - coming soon, we can have classrooms set up outside. And that's going to take resources as well. So I think it can be done, and it can be done safely.
MARTIN: I talked to a high school teacher from the Bay Area in California yesterday who told me she is very worried about her students who have just disappeared. I mean, they don't engage their video. They don't turn in homework. Or they just don't even log in to virtual classes at all. And we've heard this concern from a whole lot of teachers across the country over the past year. How are you, as the secretary of education, going to get those kids back?
CARDONA: You know, that teacher really speaks to the heart of the issue here. Every day that passes, students are being disengaged from that sense of community that schools provide. So part of our effort is to really collect data on the disengagement of students and ensure that our resources and our policy are aimed at closing those gaps that are being exacerbated. We know that some students are having better access to learning remotely than others, and we have to monitor that and make sure that we're providing resources to re-engage those students into that school community that, you know, as a parent myself, I know how important it is for our students to be reconnected into their school community, not only for the academics, but for that sense of family that schools provide.
MARTIN: America's public education system, I don't have to tell you, was already suffering before the pandemic from chronic underfunding. In your tenure, are you going to be able to address some of the problems that existed before? Or are you going to just try to get back to neutral, just get public education back to the baseline of what it was pre-COVID?
CARDONA: We would be missing an opportunity if our goal was to be what we were on March 10 of last year. We really have to move forward. We have to recover from this pandemic, which is not - like I said earlier, it's a longer process to reconnect our students and connect them with what they've missed and make sure that we have schools that are prepared to meet the social, emotional needs of our students.
And this is a fresh opportunity for us to convene educational stakeholders, people that are in the classrooms, people - parents, students - to really reimagine and say, what do we want our system to look like? And how can we ensure a system that meets every child's ability where they are and gives them the same opportunity for success in life? We had work to do before the pandemic, it's just been exacerbated now, these gaps. And we have to be unapologetic getting into that and making sure that what we plan forward is better than what we ever had before.
MARTIN: Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, thank you so much for your time this morning.
CARDONA: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
MARTIN: Listening into that conversation, NPR senior education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks for being here. Huge challenges ahead for this next secretary of education.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Yeah. It was really interesting to hear the urgency in his voice when he mentioned the fall. And he's like, I'm focused on the right now. And I'll be curious to see what these administration efforts, both the push to vaccinate teachers, the $130 billion that schools hope will be coming to them through the new COVID relief package, it'll be interesting to see what impact that has on school reopening in the next month or two.
MARTIN: And whether or not that guidance on social distancing will change, sounds like he is, at least at this point, encouraging schools to use the space they have, think creatively about the outdoors.
TURNER: Yeah, I think that's an issue we're really going to have to re-excavate come August.
MARTIN: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thank you.
TURNER: Thank you, Rachel.
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