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U.S. Education secretary, visiting L.A., speaks about masks and COVID’s inequities

A man in a suit and face mask fist-bumps a child holding a basketball.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits with Mason Poole-Hughes during his visit to Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke with the Los Angeles Times this week about the deep education inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic and how he thinks schools can address them; about the debate over school mask mandates; and about the potential impact of the Delta variant on in-person learning.

“I’m confident that if we follow the mitigation strategies, it’s not going to impact the opening of schools,” he said.

His visit on Wednesday was part of a national tour to highlight summer learning programs and tout federal funding for schools through the American Rescue Plan. He spent part of the afternoon dancing and shooting hoops with students during an outdoor event coordinated by the READY SET initiative, launched by the Creative Artists Agency Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education to help recruit volunteer mentors, tutors and others to help support students struggling because of the pandemic.

One of Cardona’s biggest concerns, he said, is the “emotional and mental health well-being of our students if they continue learning remotely, when they want to be in school. We know students learn best in the classroom.”

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Here are his thoughts on various issues, condensed and edited for clarity:

When schools reopened in spring, Black, Latino and Asian parents kept their students home at high rates, while white, more affluent parents sent their children back. Are you concerned whether that pattern will repeat itself in the fall? And if so, what should schools be doing now to address it?

There’s still a lot of fear. There’s still a lot of hesitation. ... I’ll share with you what I think should be happening by sharing some examples of what I’ve seen.

Howard University opened up their campus to the community to get vaccinations. A high school in Washington, D.C., opened up their campus so families and students could go into a familiar setting, with familiar nurses and people from the local drugstore administering the vaccination with their educators in the building.

So schools are really a part of the conversation when it comes to how to lift the community back up. ... I also think with regard to our Asian students we have to make sure our schools are welcoming environments for our students. We have to keep in mind that if a student’s academic bandwidth is going to be big, we have to make sure that they feel safe and comfortable in the school, that they feel welcome.

What about the disproportionate impact of online learning and school closures on Black and Latino students? Do you feel a sense of urgency to reach those students? And how can schools do that?

I definitely do feel a sense of urgency. I felt that before ... we had gaps before the pandemic and if you look, my whole career, I’ve been really trying to make sure that we get to the root causes of those and provide the support, not only for the students, but their families in those communities.

So yes, I do feel that double, an increased sense of urgency, as does the president. Look at the resources that were put forth in education over the last six months. ... I believe that education is the foundation of our country’s growth. And what that could translate into, through the American Rescue Plan, is ... enriching summer school programming, right? Where kids are engaged, they’re learning with one another.

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It could also translate into smaller class sizes for our students in urban settings where sometimes class sizes are higher. It translates into students going into school and having a school counselor that’s available to them, having a school nurse that’s available to them. In many urban centers that’s not the case.

How important is extra learning time? In Los Angeles there has not been much appetite for adding extra school days or extending the school day.

There are several strategies; extended learning time is one of them. I worked in a district where we had, in our neediest schools, an extra 100 minutes a day for those students. That created 40 days a year. That’s pretty significant — and summer learning opportunities as well.

I think what we do with our time matters as well. How are we engaging our students? But extended learning time and giving students more I think is important because it gives them more socialization, keeping in mind that schools have been closed for many students. For many students, they’ve been learning behind the screen. ...

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But it’s important that the additional time is enriching as much academically as it is social and emotionally. Students shouldn’t be in extended time, sitting by themselves doing work in front of them. They should be engaging with one another.

I want to talk about English learners. Over and over again, we saw that they didn’t have the resources to do online learning, and assessments show the impact of that lost time. What do schools need to be doing to help English learners right now?

I agree. English learners are one of the groups of students that have been impacted most significantly by the pandemic. We know language learning requires interaction, and the use of language. And for these students, they didn’t have that. So in addition to broadband technology, these are students that would also benefit from extended learning time.

Weekend opportunities to do adventures or trips with their classmates to get experiences so that they can use their language in natural settings. Ensuring that they have smaller class sizes so that they’re learning the language and getting the support that they need from certified teachers who are also fully bilingual.

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These are students that would benefit from having schools that do more with the American Rescue Plan to provide outreach to families. If we want to help our English learner students, we have to embrace their family.

Nosotros los Latinos, es familia, verdad? (For us Latinos, it’s about family, right?) So I can help my students by helping my families.

The big debate in California is over mask mandates in schools. What are your thoughts on this?

When my children went to school last year, for me, it was non-negotiable that masks were worn, because we were learning about the pandemic. That was a year ago. Thankfully now they’re vaccinated ... and we’ve learned so much more about what mitigation strategies work. We were successful in Connecticut because we listened to CDC and we followed their guidance.

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There are some communities where the concerns about sending children to school are greater than other communities. So I trust that the school communities, the local leaders, the local boards, are able to take that into account when making decisions about whether to have masks be worn or not. I will tell you that if you’re not vaccinated, it makes all the sense in the world to wear masks. It got us to where we are now. And we need to ensure we continue to follow the guidance of CDC.

I’m watching the Delta variant, and I’m confident that if we follow the mitigation strategies, it’s not going to impact the opening of schools.


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