The Stakes Feel Higher Than Ever As The Education Secretary Welcomes Students Back

Sep 20, 2021
Originally published on September 21, 2021 6:16 am

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona kickstarts his "Return-to-School Road Trip" this week, talking up the Biden administration's efforts to help children safely return to classrooms. The five-day bus tour begins early Monday with a pep rally at Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wisc.

"The best part of fall is welcoming students back for a new school year, and I'm thrilled to be traveling across the Midwest to celebrate the return to safe in-person learning," Cardona said in a release announcing the tour.

Cardona is not the first education secretary to hit the road welcoming students back to school, but the stakes feel higher now. Children across the country are returning to classrooms, in some cases for the first time in more than a year, and with the delta variant of COVID-19 still ravaging many communities and no vaccine yet for kids younger than 12, many families feel as uncomfortable as ever with the idea of sending their kids to school.

The data offer cause for both alarm and comfort. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as of Sept. 9, nearly 5.3 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but nearly 500,000 of those cases have come in just the past two weeks, as kids returned to classrooms, sometimes with unmasked classmates. If there is good news in these numbers, it's that, according to the AAP, severe illness and hospitalization remain uncommon, and deaths are rarer still — just "0.00%-0.03[%] of all child COVID-19 cases."

So Cardona's job is two-fold: to use his bully pulpit to push schools and, in some cases, state leaders to adopt the kinds of strong safety measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to reassure anxious parents, caregivers and educators that, with those measures in place, kids can — and should — return to school.

"The return to school this year is more special than ever," Cardona said, "after many of our nation's students have been disconnected from their peers, educators, classrooms, school communities and learning routines for over a year."

Each stop of the five-state, Midwestern tour will have its own theme. A Wednesday event in Kendallville, Ind., will focus on adult education and literacy while, in Lansing, Mich., Cardona will highlight the administration's efforts to improve access to early childhood education.

At every stop, Cardona will almost certainly talk up the enormous infusion of federal funding schools have received since the pandemic began, including in the American Rescue Plan, which carried a roughly $122 billion lifeline to help schools pay for everything from improved ventilation and extra staffing to summer school and tutoring for children to recover some of the learning time they may have lost during the pandemic.

Cardona's pitch will likely balance this kind of informed optimism with the occasional burst of political pugilism. Fights over masking and vaccinating students 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 unveiled a grant to cover the costs.

The tour wraps up on Friday with a school visit in Canton, Mich., outside Detroit.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, is leading the Biden administration's effort to keep children in classrooms safely. When several states blocked schools from requiring masks, he said the Education Department would investigate them for potentially violating children's civil rights. Now his message is going to travel for a back-to-school bus tour, and NPR's Cory Turner has been traveling along. He's in Milwaukee. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Good to talk with you once again. I understand the secretary is visiting five states. What are you hearing as he gets started?

TURNER: Yeah, so we started yesterday - the first leg, we're in Wisconsin. And, you know, I'm hearing something a little different this time. I'm hearing a lot of kids, including this fourth-grader named Aaron.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AARON: As fourth-graders, we've been talking about respect. The No. 1 thing was say something nice to others. Secretary Cardona, you look very nice today.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Aaron goes to Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wis. It's a district of about 11,000 students, where Cardona started his tour. The secretary popped in and out of classrooms, laughing, making jokes with the kids. You got to remember, Steve, he is a lifelong educator who started as a fourth-grade teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIGUEL CARDONA: I'm glad you're back in school, and I heard you're having Rice Krispie Treats for lunch.

(CROSSTALK)

CARDONA: That's amazing.

TURNER: He also handed out chocolate coins. He talked to Pokemon with Aaron, who we heard earlier. And he read the morning announcements. And then after the tour, the kids gathered for a pep rally.

INSKEEP: Which was like what?

TURNER: Well, so it was outdoors, obviously. Eau Claire has a mask mandate, so all the kids were still wearing masks. And, you know, sometimes these events can feel really staged. You end up getting a kind of speech about policy surrounded by kids who are wondering why they're there. But this speech was clearly for the kids. Even when Cardona talked about President Biden's efforts to increase school funding, he asked them what would they like to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARDONA: Better nets on the soccer goals. Yes? Yes. All right, I'll write that down. Adrian (ph) wrote this one. And, Adrian, thank you for writing this one 'cause I agree with you - more art.

TURNER: Even the secretary's mode of transportation was somewhat playful. It was a giant purple bus with the words honk if you love teachers on the bumper.

INSKEEP: OK, so I'm taking a note here - better nets. I don't know if the administration can help with that or not.

TURNER: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: What is the substantive purpose of this trip?

TURNER: Well, this is where we get serious, Steve, because this is the third school year that has now been affected by COVID. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 226,000 children tested positive for COVID in the past week, and that is the third-highest number of child cases in a week since the pandemic began.

INSKEEP: Wow.

TURNER: Cardona knows all of this. And he also knows that the politics around masking and vaccinations have become essentially toxic, at least for the grown-ups. So he's trying to find creative ways of gently selling his message, about which he's been pretty relentless - the kids should be back in school. The best way to keep them there is by following the science. That means wearing masks. Cardona also told me yesterday he fully supports mandating vaccines, even for kids.

INSKEEP: I suppose that all of this gives a stronger political edge to this bus tour than might normally be the case.

TURNER: Yeah, this definitely stands out from previous tours. And, you know, it's just - it's because of the pandemic. It raises the stakes. You know, I - when I was walking into the school yesterday, I heard a staff member on the phone with a parent explaining the district's quarantine policy. So I asked the superintendent later about it. He said, sure enough, in spite of the mask mandate, they've had several students having to quarantine at the school and elsewhere in the district. And, you know, in places where students are not wearing masks and where vaccination rates are much lower, even more kids are being sent home. And this is why Cardona is out there this week.

INSKEEP: Cory, thanks.

TURNER: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner is in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.