Miguel Cardona walks the halls of Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wis., with a gray mask, a crisp blue suit and the easy familiarity of a teacher or principal, though he is neither.
He pops into Ms. Gallaher's first-grade classroom to welcome the masked children back to school and ask about their favorite playground equipment ("swings!" by a landslide), then checks in with Mr. P's fourth-graders long enough to talk Pokémon, drop a few bad dad jokes (Cardona has two teens at home in Connecticut) and hand out chocolate coins.
"If you look really closely, it says, 'Eat me before recess today,' " Cardona jokes about the coins' gold foil wrapping. The kids love it, both the chocolate and this strange grown-up championing dessert at all hours.
Though Cardona is a former fourth-grade teacher and principal, not to mention the former commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut, he's visiting Locust Lane in a very different capacity: as the nation's top education official, the U.S. secretary of education.
Eau Claire was the first stop of a "Return-to-School Road Trip" that had Cardona barnstorming across five Midwestern states this week in a lush, purple bus, talking up the Biden administration's efforts to help children return safely to desks and hopscotch grids that many haven't touched in more than a year.
After the classroom visits comes an outdoor pep rally, where Cardona promises to share the kids' requests of more time for recess and art with President Biden. When he's finished, he grabs a cowbell and thwacks along with the North High School marching band playing Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train."
"The best sign of recovery as a country is to listen to school bands," Cardona tells the crowd.
The purpose of all this choreographed fun is to reassure anxious students, families and educators that classrooms are once again safe — and to celebrate schools that have embraced the secretary's message of universal masking and vaccines for everyone who is eligible. Because beneath this ebullient surface is a strong undertow, fueled by the delta variant.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 226,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in the week ending Sept. 16 — the third highest number of child cases in a week since the pandemic began. And a regional breakdown of child COVID-19 cases shows the return to school in August coincided with an explosion of new cases in southern states where many schools have been either unable or unwilling to require student masking or staff vaccination. The Midwest, Northeast and West all saw far smaller increases in child cases.
The secretary has paired optimism with political pugilism
"The reality is, we still have folks that are making decisions that are not protecting children," Cardona says later that afternoon. He's sitting at a quiet table on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, just a few feet from the untroubled waters of Lake Mendota.
Away from the crowds of children, a very different education secretary emerges, one who is quite serious and clearly frustrated.
"Sadly, you can look at the data in those places that are more relaxed about [safety]. Their emergency rooms are filled up. Their pediatric ICUs are filled up, which is different than in other places like [Locust Lane Elementary]," Cardona says. "Kids are happy. We're not talking about interrupted learning. We can joke around about what's for lunch."
It's worth noting that even at some schools that do require masks, delta has found a way in, forcing students and staff into quarantine and pushing some districts to re-think their online options. At Locust Lane, a few dozen students are currently quarantining, despite the district's mask mandate, which school officials say has been unpopular with some families. Still, Superintendent Mike Johnson says their mask policy has also helped limit infections to a few dozen confirmed cases across the district of about 11,000 students.
Cardona has been education secretary for just over six months, and the pandemic has thus far dominated his tenure. He has tried to balance optimism — about getting kids back into schools safely — with the occasional burst of political pugilism. Universal masking and efforts to vaccinate students and staff, which Cardona sees as integral to that safe return to school, have roiled many districts, and Biden's education secretary has repeatedly thrown punches in the name of public health.
When several states banned schools from requiring that students wear masks, the secretary announced his department would investigate them for potentially violating the civil rights of students with disabilities. When Florida withheld the salaries of some school officials who defied the state's mask mandate ban, Cardona awarded the district a grant to cover the costs.
But local officials have far more power over schools than the education secretary, and this week's bus tour — to Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan — gives Cardona a chance to take his evangelism for masking and vaccination on the road. For politicians and parents who say those choices are deeply personal, and should not be forced on anyone, the secretary has three words: "Schools are communities."
Cardona pauses, and repeats.
"Schools are communities. What an important lesson we need to teach our kids: My actions affect someone else. And unfortunately, it's not the kids that have a hard time with it. It's the adults. The kids are fine."
School officials are under attack over masking
Many adults are definitely not fine. The fight over universal masking and vaccine requirements in schools has become so toxic that, earlier this week, Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association, felt compelled to release a statement defending school officials who are under attack in their communities for following federal safety guidance.
"We will never back down from the importance of freedom of speech, but we cannot—and will not—tolerate aggression, intimidation, threats and violence toward superintendents, board members and educators," Domenech wrote.
Meanwhile, Cardona continues his balancing act — between playing the fist-bumping safety-booster and comforter-in-chief to anxious students, families and educators, and playing hardball with state leaders who he believes are prioritizing politics over public safety.
The day after his stop in Eau Claire, while Cardona visited a vaccine clinic outside Chicago and checked in with more students (and another marching band), his department also sent a warning letter to Texas, saying the agency is investigating whether the state's ban, preventing schools from requiring masks, violates students' civil rights.
Producer Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been pushing hard for schools to reopen and stay open, but safely. In some cases, that's meant him fighting politicians who have tried to block schools from requiring children to wear masks. With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing among kids, Cardona took his safe reopening message on the road this week. NPR's Cory Turner was there and has this story.
MIGUEL CARDONA: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Good morning.
CARDONA: I heard - I don't know if it's true. I don't know if it's true, but I heard this is the smartest first-grade class in the whole state. Is that true?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yeah.
CARDONA: Is it?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yeah.
CARDONA: Let me see. Raise your hand...
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: There's something strange about watching a cabinet official in a crisp blue suit, followed by an entourage of cameras and security guards, make his way through a bustling school. The school is Locust Lane Elementary in Eau Claire, Wis. The cabinet official is, of course, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. After popping into Miss Gallaher's first grade class, Cardona, himself a former teacher, visits Mr. P's fourth grade class in the middle of math to hand out gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
CARDONA: And I don't know if we have enough, so if not, you're going to have to learn fractions by the end of the day today, too. Oh, no, we have plenty.
TURNER: Next up, an outdoor pep rally in the parking lot.
CARDONA: When I say, are we going to have a great year, you're going to say...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.
CARDONA: Are you ready?
TURNER: There was even a high school marching band with Cardona playing the cowbell.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TURNER: But just under the surface of all of this fun is the very serious undertow of delta. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 226,000 children tested positive for COVID last week. That's the third highest number of child cases in a week since the pandemic began. And this is when a very different education secretary emerges, one who is frustrated.
CARDONA: The reality is we still have folks that are making decisions that are not protecting children, so I'm honored to stand up for those children.
TURNER: Cardona has been pushing back hard against states that have blocked schools from requiring masks and where vaccination rates are still low.
CARDONA: Sadly, you can look at the data. In those places that are more relaxed about it, their emergency rooms are filled up. Their pediatric ICUs are filled up, which is different than in other places like where we were this morning. Kids are happy. We're not talking about interrupted learning. We can joke around about what's for lunch.
TURNER: It's worth noting, learning has been interrupted, even at Locust Lane. When I first walked into the school that morning, I heard a staff member on the phone with a parent explaining the district's quarantine policy. In spite of the school's mask mandate, a few dozen students are currently quarantining. Still, this bus tour gives Cardona a chance to be an evangelist for masking and vaccination. And to politicians and parents who say those choices are deeply personal and should not be forced on anyone, the secretary has three words.
CARDONA: Schools are communities. And what an important lesson we need to teach our kids - my actions affect someone else. And unfortunately, it's not the kids that have a hard time with it. It's the adults. The kids are fine.
TURNER: And this balance or imbalance will likely define this school year. The day after his stop in Eau Claire, for example, the secretary visited Chicago, again talking up safety and trying to put anxious students at ease. There was another band and dancing. That same day, though, his department sent a warning to Texas, saying the agency is investigating whether the state's ban preventing schools from requiring masks violates students' civil rights.
Cory Turner, NPR News, Eau Claire, Wis.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "ALWAYS ALRIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.