The nation’s new education secretary is calling for schools to be “redesigned” after the coronavirus pandemic.
“We shouldn’t go back to the schools of March 2020—that’s a low bar,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a discussion with the founders of A Starting Point, a civic engagement organization.
“We have to make sure that our schools have stronger mental health supports, have better training for all educators, including bus drivers, cafeteria staff, everyone that engages with students, to understand the social and emotional needs of students,” he continued. “That has to be a prerequisite to getting our schools open quickly and safely.”
Cardona said the coronavirus relief plan signed into law by President Joe Biden last month will focus on redesigning schools so that students feel supported amid the ongoing public health crisis.
“The American Rescue Plan prioritizes funds and, really, prioritizes redesigning our schools,” he told Starting Point founders Chris Evans and Mark Kassen.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and our school systems have to be prepared to welcome our students back, not only with the academic learning needs that they might have missed but really to receive them and our staff after having experienced a traumatic experience like COVID-19,” Cardona said.
Biden’s relief package provided the U.S. Education Department with $122 billion to help reopen the majority of K-8 schools within the president’s first 100 days in office.
Most of the nation’s schools shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic last year, moving instead to virtual learning, which presented its own challenges, especially among lower-income students who did not have broadband connection to the internet.
As schools began reopening in the fall, safety measures, such as face masks and social distancing, were implemented, but some districts faced pushback from educators who felt unsafe returning to work. In response, federal health officials stressed the importance of in-person learning by highlighting the toll online classes had taken on students and recommended that states prioritize teachers in their vaccination rollouts.
“We know there is no substitute for in-person learning. The biggest equity lever we have is providing safe, in-person learning options for students,” Cardona said. “We know, as much as we’ve worked really hard to get the laptops to connect and make sure there’s internet access, the relationship that students have with their peers and their teachers—there’s no substitute for that.”
Despite the return to in-person classes, the education secretary, who was confirmed on March 1, said the digital divide that was seen as schools scrambled to provide virtual lessons needs to be addressed by his department.
“The laptop is like the new pencil. It’s no longer a privilege. It’s no longer something that’s cool. It’s a necessity to be functional in today’s society and in today’s schools,” he said. “We need to close that digital divide across the country once and for all. It’s a finite problem to have, and that’s something that we need to make sure we’re focusing on as we reopen [schools].”
Cardona emphasized the importance of building up that infrastructure, pointing to Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plans, which includes $100 billion to expand broadband access across the country over the next eight years.