In confirmation hearing, Cardona says he’ll work to reopen schools. But how hard will he push?

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: U.S. Secretary of Education nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on February 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. Previously Cardona served as Connecticut's Education Secretary. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images) (Susan Walsh / Pool / Getty Images)

Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s education secretary nominee, said Wednesday that there were “great examples” of schools reopening safely across the country. But the “frustration and distrust and fear” in many places, he acknowledged, is real.

To address that, teachers should be prioritized to receive the coronavirus vaccine, and schools need to be able to conduct systematic testing to keep tabs on the virus’ spread. 

“I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that our rollout strategy for reopening schools includes communication on how to safely reopen schools,” he said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee. “That needs to include increased surveillance testing for our educators and prioritization of our educators for vaccination.”

Still, Cardona signaled that he doesn’t believe it’s necessary for all teachers to be vaccinated before in-person learning can resume, if enough other mitigation strategies are in place — a position echoed by the new CDC director Wednesday.

Those comments were the most concrete take on the national school reopening debate from the Connecticut schools chief, who appears poised for confirmation after a fairly friendly hearing. 

Cardona has a limited track record in public office, and his choice allowed Biden to avoid choosing a side on issues like school choice that have divided Democrats in recent years.

And though Cardona is known for his strong stance in favor of school reopening, he didn’t wade into the more divisive side of that effort on Wednesday: how aggressively to encourage reluctant school officials and teachers to return.

Instead, Cardona continued to express support for Biden’s stimulus plan, which he said would help reopen schools. The proposal would provide $130 billion for schools, or $2,600 per student. 

Students have lost learning, are failing more classes, and in some cases, are experiencing more mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. Schools are also facing an uncertain financial future, with some state cuts still likely without additional federal aid. Cardona said that money would help address those longer-term challenges, allowing districts to extend the school day, expand summer programming, and hire more counselors and other school staff. 

“The funding that’s being considered now, moving forward, is really to make sure we recover,” he said. “If we really want to recover, we really need to invest now, or we’re going to pay later.” 

Some Republicans were not sold. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina pointed out that Congress has already allocated nearly $70 billion in new funding for schools. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah questioned the efficacy of hiring more teachers. (A number of studies have found tangible benefits of smaller classes, though some researchers have questioned their cost-effectiveness.) 

When asked what it would take to reopen America’s schools, Cardona said he would follow much of the same playbook he used as the commissioner of Connecticut’s schools. He pointed to the importance of talking regularly with public health experts and letting school districts know which mitigation strategies work best.

“We have some communities with high schools of 150 students, we have other communities with high schools of 3,000 students,” Cardona said. “We recognized that our job was to provide clear guidance on how to open schools safely.” 

Cardona also clashed at times with Connecticut’s teachers unions, who wanted a more conservative approach to reopening — but he maintained consistent communication with them, and the unions ultimately praised his nomination.

In recent days, several influential teachers unions across the country have ratcheted up their demands to put more safety measures in place before in-person learning can resume, prompting questions about whether labor battles would interfere with the president’s goal of reopening more schools soon.

Notably, Cardona was not asked about what the federal government should do to help improve the experience for students who are still learning remotely — or if it should play a role in encouraging school officials and families who’ve been hesitant to return to buildings to go back. Nearly four in 10 students still only have access to virtual instruction, while many others have opted for that model, and those students are disproportionately Black and Latino. 

Questioned about charter schools, Cardona suggested that he wouldn’t actively oppose them, but that his focus would be elsewhere. 

“I recognize there are excellent examples of charter schools … I know there are also phenomenal examples of neighborhood schools,” he said. “It’s really important that we support all schools, including those neighborhood schools that are usually the first choice for families in that community.”

He didn’t answer a question on whether he supports D.C.’s private school voucher program, which is funded by the federal government.

The most tense moments came as several Republican senators pressed Cardona on whether transgender students should be able to compete in athletic competitions corresponding with their gender identity — an issue that Cardona has watched play out in Connecticut.

In response, Cardona said he would uphold the civil rights of all students, including transgender students, and said it was “critically important” and the “legal responsibility of schools” to make sure transgender students are afforded the same opportunities as other students to participate in extracurricular activities.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that a federal law barring discrimination on the basis of sex also effectively bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The education department under Betsy DeVos claimed that this ruling does not apply to Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education settings. Cardona suggested that he would begin applying the ruling to Title IX.

If he’s confirmed, one of the first decisions awaiting Cardona will be whether to grant waivers from required federal testing this year. He sent mixed messages on this question Wednesday. 

“If the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person, I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them,” he said. At the same time, he said getting a gauge of student learning is important. “If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support.”

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut hinted that reforming student discipline will also be on Cardona’s plate early. He said Cardona would be “immediately presented” with an executive order on school discipline policies that will push schools to collect more data. 

DeVos revoked guidance that had been issued under President Obama in 2014 that was meant to curb racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. A pledge to reissue the school discipline guidance was part of Biden’s Democratic platform, though many education advocates have surmised it would be updated to include more guidance around school policing, which has been under greater scrutiny in recent years, especially in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

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