U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona challenged governors in Florida and Texas who have barred school districts from requiring students and teachers to wear masks, and announced efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates among children 12 and older as the school year gets under way.
In his remarks during a White House press conference Thursday, Cardona also dismissed the idea that teachers’ unions would resist a return to classrooms, saying, “All teachers want schools reopened.”
He repeatedly called for leaders to keep politics out of schools’ efforts to reopen and said that adult decisions should not hurt students who need in-person learning after 18 months of closures and isolation. “Our kids have suffered enough,” Cardona said of students, highlighting the importance of supporting their mental health and the well-being of educators, too.
When asked by a reporter what he would say to two Republican governors, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, who have prohibited districts from requiring masks in schools, Cardona responded, “Don’t be the reason why schools are interrupted.” (Cardona added that he was in touch with those governors and wanted to work with them effectively.)
On the other hand, he praised Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who earlier this year signed a law that prohibited school districts from putting any masking requirements in place, but is now seeking to reverse that ban. Hutchinson faces an uphill battle in getting state lawmakers to agree with him.
Nine states have banned school districts from setting universal mask mandates. Those bans are in effect in six states. In the remaining three states, mask mandate bans have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.
MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT
- South Carolina
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
*On Sept. 22, Florida‘s newly-appointed surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians “sole discretion” over masking in schools.
On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of the requirement if they choose.
Tennessee‘s governor has signed an executive order requiring schools to allow families to opt out of mask mandates.
In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.
An Arizona judge ruled the state law banning mask mandates will not go into effect until Sept. 29.
In Arkansas, a judge paused the state law that prohibits local officials from setting mask mandates, meaning school districts can—at least for now—set their own local mask requirements.
On Sept. 13, a federal district court ordered Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools.
Updated guidance released by the Texas Education Agency on Sept. 17 states that per the governor’s executive order, school systems “cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”
Updated 9/22/2021 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here
In addition, the Biden administration announced a “week of action” in K-12 and higher education to encourage student vaccinations, which is slated to include a push from dozens of youth and faith-based organizations, as well as an effort backed by the National Parent Teacher Association to have pediatricians talk about COVID-19 vaccines at parent-teacher meetings and other events. The administration is also supporting efforts to incorporate the vaccines into sports physicals for student athletes.
Cardona also plans travel with second gentleman Douglas Emhoff to visit a back-to-school vaccination clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
During the press conference, Cardona stressed that part of the administration’s goal is to have students talk to and convince each other about the benefits of getting the vaccine. But when asked by a reporter, Cardona did not say whether he would consider developing or promoting strategies like separating vaccinated students from their unvaccinated peers; instead he stressed the importance of masking and social distancing.
“Now is the time to get students back into the classroom, not to be complacent, and not to let politics get in the way,” Cardona said.
Seeking a ‘roadmap’ as the Delta variant gives schools headaches
Cardona’s remarks are part of a public-relations push by the Biden administration for schools to hold face-to-face classes for the 2021-22 academic year. The spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus has complicated life for educators focusing on how to resume in-person activities, and has fueled public concerns that the virus will caused massive, if not catastrophic, disruptions for students and schools for the third straight year.
Debates over whether districts should require masks in schools, and whether there should be any vaccine mandates for educators, have also fueled division about the best approach for schools over the next several months.
Last week, President Joe Biden called on schools to host vaccination clinics in order to boost the share of students ages 12 and up who are vaccinated.
On Monday, the Education Department released a “Return to Schools Roadmap” with resources and information intended to help schools reopen for in-person instruction with appropriate safety measures. Among other things, the department’s guide said schools and districts “should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and the occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on layered prevention strategies” as they work to keep classrooms open.
Cardona is also trying to balance the administration’s desire for schools to resume regular operations to the greatest extent possible with its desire to improve the K-12 system as a whole.
On Wednesday, Cardona gave a speech at a Baltimore school, in which he stressed that while having students return to schools is a top priority, students deserve more from schools in the future. “The goal is not March 2020,” Cardona said.
Citing the $122 billion in the American Rescue Plan for states and local school districts to support K-12 schools, as well as guidance about safe practices for reopening schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biden administration said that in-person learning is crucial for helping students recover from the pandemic, especially those who’ve been hardest hit by COVID-19’s affects on schools and society at large.
However, the fluctuating recommendations from the CDC, which in May said vaccinated adults could largely forego masks indoors yet in July called for universal masking in schools as the Delta variant spread, could undercut optimism that the new school year will operate more smoothly for students and educators than last year. (The CDC’s May guidance did call on schools to maintain “layered mitigation strategies” including masks through at least the end of the 2020-21 school year.)
Biden said last week that 90 percent of teachers and other school staff are vaccinated. On Monday, the teachers’ union for New York state came out in opposition to a vaccination mandate. The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday about whether the Biden administration supports a vaccination mandate for school staff.
In March, Biden set a goal of having all educators get at least one dose of the vaccine by the end of the month through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.
Asked Thursday whether the current virus surge was making him rethink the wisdom of reopening school buildings, Cardona said, “While the Delta variant is providing new challenges, we have the tools, we have the resources, and we have the experience of what worked last year to get it done safely.”