After the National Safe School Reopening Summit March 24, a virtual event at the White House, we interviewed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona about a variety of topics related to the coronavirus pandemic. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. A summary of highlights from the summit, which featured remarks by President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, and representatives from several school districts, appears below this Q&A.
Today, when you announced the Summer Learning and Enrichment Collaborative, you said you’re not a fan of skill and drill to help students in the months ahead. Do you have any strategies you think are particularly effective or promising? And how will you judge success when it comes to learning recovery this summer and beyond?
We’re in the throes of a pandemic. Put yourself in the perspective of a 9-year-old. Students have been looking at a computer for the better part of a year as they learn. So any summer learning enrichment experience really needs to be re-engaging students in a community of learners. That’s done through experiential learning, getting outdoors, doing projects, [while] maintaining the health and safety standards that are required, to really re-engaging them with experiences. It could be connected to a museum visit. It could be connected to a summer camp where they have experiences. They learn through those experiences, or they write about those experiences, or they connect math to it.
It’s very hard to engage students in wanting to do skill and drill, especially after a pandemic. We really have to reimagine how we’re going to engage our students. Teachers are innovative. We saw today the innovation today that comes out of our districts. I’m excited about the Summer Learning and Enrichment Collaborative. We’re going to hear so many great ideas, knowing that we’re going to have to plan our summer experiences through the eyes of our students.
What does the Education Department plan to do to ensure there are resources, not just plans, to support the mental health of students and teachers in the context of the pandemic?
I think there’s a shift happening right now. I think that educators always knew about its importance, and the importance of students being able to access [mental health services]. However, we weren’t structured to provide that as a core service.
Historically, it’s always been ancillary and after the fact. I think we have an opportunity now to redesign our schools and make sure that it’s baked into the DNA of schools as a core service, in a way that reaches more students in a wider manner.
Yesterday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she’s not convinced by the revised recommendations to schools the CDC released last week on social distancing in schools, or the science behind it. Among other things, she wants more guidance from you. Do you think her concerns and what she’s asking of you are valid points, or do you think at this juncture educators have enough information and resources to make the best decisions for themselves and their students?
I think back on my role of commissioner of education in Connecticut. In May and June of 2020, there was a lot of skepticism, a lot of fear, a lot of concern. We were walking in uncharted territory.
Fast forward a year. We have better information about what works and what strategies we can employ, not just in our schools but in our communities to keep our communities safe. We also have the luxury of seeing where it’s worked and why it’s worked. We’ve also learned from not only the United States but other countries where it didn’t work and why it didn’t work. So by using that information, we can provide plans that are very clear on what’s worked to make schools safe, in order to reopen them.
I understand the CDC is constantly looking at data, looking at examples of where it’s worked and not worked, and refining their recommendations. Up until this point, I’ve worked closely with the health department in Connecticut, and I plan on continuing to work closely with the CDC and Health and Human Services to ensure that we keep our health and safety the number one priority as we reopen schools.
How do you know state standardized tests will be used and talked about appropriately after such a challenging year, when a large share of students might not take the tests at all? And can you imagine granting, if not blanket waivers allowing states to simply cancel tests, then approval to states that want to test some but not all relevant students or subject areas, or want to substitute local tests for state exams?
[Education writer, lecturer, and standardized-testing critic] Alfie Kohn said: To be overly enamored by data is to be vulnerable to their misuse. So we have to keep in perspective what the data will tell us and what it won’t tell us. It should never be even considered at this point for [labeling] schools as high-achieving schools, or low-achieving schools. We need to forget about that.
We also shouldn’t be utilizing data for [educator]evaluations, because it’s not valid for that this year.
However, as we’re rolling out $130 billion [in federal COVID-19 aid for schools], any data that can help state leaders think about policy and distribution of funds, to make sure that it’s aimed at closing achievement gaps and [addressing] lack of access to quality learning, that’s critically important.
The team has been working at the agency, even before I joined, on flexibilities. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We know in some places, they’ve been in schools since day one. In other places, they’re just starting to get in. So flexibility is critically important.
The enrollment in Puerto Rico’s public schools has dropped significantly in recent years. They’ve faced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic and previous natural disasters. What ideas if any do you have for how you and the federal government can be most helpful to the island’s schools? And what do you say to Puerto Ricans who might lack confidence in the long-term viability and future of the public schools there?
It’s going to be a new day for Puerto Rico. We’re going to ensure that the best science, the best strategies, are shared with Puerto Rico. We’re going to ensure that, out of my office, there’s going to be someone who’s role it is to help, usher new strategies into Puerto Rico, and ensure that families are comfortable sending their children to school.
Our students in Puerto Rico need us, not only because of the year they’ve had with the pandemic. They’ve survived earthquakes and hurricanes over the last several years, not to mention a feeling of disconnection from support. We’re going to work closely with Puerto Rico. We’re going to make sure that this agency is providing the support, connecting Puerto Rico with other states that have found success, to really lift those students up. They deserve it.
Highlights from the National Safe School Reopening Summit
During the National Safe School Reopening Summit, which featured representatives from school districts and various federal officials, Cardona maintained a positive outlook on what educators have been able to do and their ability to meet various challenges. Yet he also highlighted the “inequities” underscored by new federal data about which groups of students had access to in-person learning as of January.
That data, based on a sample of school districts and released by the U.S. Department of Education Wednesday, found that just 28 percent of Black students are learning in person daily, for example. Yet nearly half of white students were able to learn in person every day, the survey found.
There were also major disparities in access to live instruction. In eight states, for example, a majority of 4th graders got two hours or less of live instruction every day.
Citing this data, Cardona said that when it comes to reopening schools safely, “We have to act wisely and with urgency to get it done.”
The education secretary summarized strategies from different school districts for reopening school buildings, stressing a comprehensive approach. He mentioned everything from minute details, such as arrows directing traffic patterns in school hallways and 1,500 new air filters installed since January, to transparent communications with the school community.
“There were technical strategies, but they were embraced in a culture of collaboration, a culture of trust, and student-centeredness,” Cardona said.
During the summit, Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland school district, said his approach to reopening schools has included partnering with local health organizations, keeping close tabs on data about which students were using the option for in-person learning, and the recent federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about safe school reopening practices.
“It was a combination of the science the CDC provided for us, as well as the practitioners’ expertise … that really made us comfortable with the strategies that we were implementing,” Gordon said, adding later that, “The dirty little secret is, as hard as closing was, opening was harder.”
"There were technical strategies, but they were embraced in a culture of collaboration, a culture of trust, and student-centeredness."
Members of the Biden administration, as well as first lady Jill Biden, addressed the summit to stress the importance of schools and educators, and to talk up the importance of the new American Rescue Plan, which pours nearly $130 billion in education aid into states and districts. In remarks to close the summit, President Joe Biden urged educators to take advantage of the summer learning collaborative the Education Department announced Wednesday to help students in the next several months and beyond.
“This is essential for all students, particularly those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, students of color, English-learners, students with disabilities, homeless students and all those who went without in-person instruction this year,” Biden said.
In addition to walking through the implications of the CDC’s guidance to schools—which was revised last week to reflect new research about social distancing—the summit also focused on how schools operated during the last year, and how they planned to help meet students’ various needs in the summer and the next school year.
After close to 100 listening sessions and town halls to get community input about resuming in-person classes, the Cajon Valley Union district in El Cajon, Calif., has made plans to resume regular classes five days a week, said Karen Minshew, the district’s assistant superintendent.
“You hear things you don’t want to hear sometimes. You hear hard things. But we learn. And it improves the whole organization” in terms of serving students,” Minshew said.
Officials with the district in Tulsa, Okla., talked about the stress of going from in-person learning, to shutting down schools in the middle of the year as coronavirus cases in the state soared, to now holding in-person learning four days as week.
“Once we got back in person, I definitely think it was a lot easier. It was really helpful for the students who were struggling,” said Giana Alexis, a student in Tulsa.
Ebony Johnson, the chief learning officer with Tulsa schools, highlighted the district’s “Care and Connect” program in which students can come to schools in small groups to meet with teachers and other staff to discuss their challenges and get help with everything from technology issues to tutoring.
Schools also use the program to help students access social services if need be.
“We have teachers who were contacting us telling us: Thank you so much for allowing our students to come in, even if it’s just in small groups,” Johnson said. “We received feedback from our students [saying]: Oh my God, I’m so glad I can come back to my schools to get support.”
The district has also tried to implement social-emotional learning strategies to help students cope with the pandemic using a framework from a national group, said Paula Shannon, Tulsa’s deputy superintendent.
And this summer, the district is looking at virtual academies and summer enrichment programs, and also trying to rethink where students can learn, she said.
“Have the courage to be bold. You’re going to feel a lot of tension. Lots of technical questions are going to come up that are mired in old bureaucracy. Forge ahead,” Shannon said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as Miguel Cardona Talks Summer Learning, Mental Health, and State Standardized Tests