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Cardona Keeps Tough Stance on State Tests as He Focuses on School Reopenings

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — March 17, 2021 4 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a news conference at the White House, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Washington.

As the Biden administration continued its push for in-person learning Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said that the Department of Education does not plan any updates to guidance about state academic assessments it issued last month that said the agency is not entertaining requests to cancel those standardized exams for this school year.

His comments came as the administration detailed $10 billion in new funding to support COVID-19 testing in schools, notified states of the K-12 relief funds they would receive through the new American Rescue Plan, and set the date for a school reopening summit next week.

“This spring, we’re wanting to see schools reopen” with appropriate health and safety measures in place, Cardona said in a call with reporters. He stressed that students benefit in many ways from being able to attend school and engage in a variety of school activities beyond just academic instruction.

“I just know that school reopening is about creating those opportunities for students,” Cardona said. “Teachers can adapt and make sure they’re providing opportunities for students.”

The education secretary also said he expects schools to reopen for in-person learning in the fall. But he declined to take a position on whether federal guidance about social distancing in schools should be changed in response to a recent study that shows three feet of social distancing may be adequate if students consistently wear masks.

Cardona’s comments came the same day the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will host a summit on reopening schools safely on March 24. The summit will feature Cardona, first lady Jill Biden, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky. It will include sessions focused on lessons from the field, technical assistance to implementing CDC guidance on reopening schools, and addressing students’ social-emotional and academic needs in an equitable way.

“We really need to hear from the field what’s happening,” Cardona said on the call."Let’s not forget, there are so many students who are wondering right now: Am I going to be able to walk the stage for graduation?”

On that call, the Education Department announced allocations from the American Rescue Plan’s elementary and secondary school stabilization fund for each state. Read more about the details of the relief package here.

Hours later, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced state-by-state allocations for $10 billion in COVID-19 testing specifically for schools through the new aid package. Cardona said Wednesday that “surveillance testing of schools is critically important” and would accelerate reopening.

Testing is a complicated issue for schools. White House testing coordinator Carole Johnson said at a press briefing that the funding and related technical assistance from federal agencies could help educational administrators address hurdles to implementing broad screening testing programs, which are one of the least-used mitigation strategies in CDC guidance.

The Biden team’s approach to reopening has been controversial

Cardona’s comments about state exams come nearly a month after his agency issued guidance about state exams that indicated that states will have to give federally mandated tests for this school year, although it also left the door open for additional “flexibility.”

Some states had pushed to get state testing waivers this spring for a second straight year because of challenges to assessing students imposed by the pandemic. Even after the Education Department’s guidance on Feb. 22—before Cardona was sworn in as education secretary—some state officials haven’t given up their efforts to get blanket waivers or find other loopholes around giving traditional state tests.

Cardona said Wednesday that the department’s advisory to states “is the guidance that we’re going with moving forward on assessments.” That guidance also noted that states have the ability to shorten the exams, administer them remotely, or give them in the summer or the fall as well as this spring.

Just how broadly the department’s reopening summit will apply to what schools are actually doing is a contested issue. Data indicates that many, if not the majority, of school districts are offering some kind of in-person instruction, although it’s less clear if a corresponding share of students are actually going to classes in school buildings. Districts offering in-person instruction might not be doing so five days a week, and they might also rely on hybrid options.

The CDC guidance itself has been the subject of intense debate in recent weeks. The Biden administration unveiled new COVID-19 guidance for schools in February, but the CDC is already reconsidering a major piece of it: whether students must stay at least six feet apart in order to avoid the risk of contagion through airborne droplets or particles. The CDC might ultimately revise that recommended distance down to three feet. The February guidance has also been the target of critics who say it is too cautious.

However, Cardona said he would defer to health experts about the wisdom of changing recommendations on social distancing.

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