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Cardona Takes Office Amidst School Openings and Spring Assessments Controversies

This blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Biden Administration Forges Ahead on School Reopening/Vaccines for Teachers as Secretary of Education Cardona Takes Office

American flag on a blackboardOn Tuesday evening Miguel Cardona was sworn in as the nation’s new Secretary of Education. The Senate voted 64-33 to confirm Cardona, a former public school teacher, principal and state superintendent. Cardona assumes the Education Department’s top job as the debate around how to safely reopen schools has grown increasingly bitter. President Biden in response is now walking a political tightrope, reassuring teachers they should be prioritized for the vaccine while recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that vaccinations should not be a prerequisite for reopening schools. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last month that vaccinating all teachers against COVID-19 before reopening schools is “non-workable,” Cardona wasted no time, diving into the debate over school reopening—with a USA Today op-ed posting as his swearing-in ceremony concluded. In the article, Cardona reaffirmed his commitment to safely reopening schools, announcing that he will convene a “national summit on safe school reopening” later this month.

Cardona assumes the job not long after the department issued guidance late last month requiring states to resume the annual testing of students. Testing, like teacher vaccination, has become a painful political wedge for Democrats. Teachers unions have opposed testing requirements, arguing they consume valuable learning time and that many vulnerable students are still home and unable to take the tests easily. The Biden administration, with the backing of some civil rights groups, argues that testing is key to measuring students’ progress or lack thereof.

In his first official visit as Secretary of Education, Cardona and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden pushed for in-person learning when they visited schools in Meriden, CT—Cardona’s hometown, and Waterford, PA. on Wednesday. The pair visited the schools to see first-hand what safety and mitigation measures they have implemented in order to reopen. “We must continue to reopen America’s schools for in person learning as quickly and as safely as possible,” Cardona said. “The president recognizes this which is why he took bold action yesterday to get teachers and school staff vaccinated quickly.” He added that making sure teachers and staff are vaccinated is his “top priority.”

This week President Biden directed state leaders to prioritize educators for COVID-19 vaccines, in a sweeping declaration that acknowledged teacher anxiety but added a major wrinkle to local inoculation plans and existing CDC school reopening guidance. “Over 30 states have already taken a step to prioritize educators for vaccination,” Biden said Tuesday, as he announced a vaccine manufacturing agreement that will accelerate the timeline for offering shots to most Americans. “I’m directing every state to do the same,” the president said. “My challenge to all states, territories and the District of Columbia is this: We want every educator, school staff member [and] child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.”

Teachers’ unions praised Biden’s declaration. “With promises of a vaccine, we have a new opportunity to create safe and just schools for every student,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.  The American Federation of Teachers echoed the NEA with President Randi Weingarten,  in a separate statement, adding that the White House commitment and CDC guidance left the union confident its members would be able return to classrooms “within the next weeks and months.”

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information. I look forward to seeing you on Twitter @janewestdc.


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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant