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Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona, saying there’s “no substitute” for learning in the classroom, promised to ensure schools can reopen safely in the midst of the Covid pandemic — an issue that’s divided teachers, school administrators, and parents.
Lawmakers from both parties signaled at Cardona’s Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that they would support his nomination. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the incoming chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said after the nominee testified that she hoped to schedule a vote “as quickly as possible.” Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee’s incoming ranking member, said he would urge Republican colleagues to support Cardona.
Lawmakers on the committee quizzed Cardona on civil rights, standardized tests, and student debt, but getting schools back open was the top focus.
“I’ll do everything in my power to make sure our rollout of a strategy for reopening schools includes communication on how to safely reopen schools,” Cardona said.
That strategy should include measures such as surveillance testing for Covid-19 cases on campuses, he said, and making vaccines for educators a priority.
President Joe Biden has pledged that a majority of K-12 schools will be back open within 100 days of his taking office. Both Democrats and Republicans have called for getting classrooms back open, citing concerns over a lower quality of remote instruction.
Cardona said the entire country is grappling with setbacks to academic progress and that the Education Department would have to respond to inequities fueled by the pandemic.
“We have to make sure we identify those practices that work now, that are effective in meeting students where they are,” he said.
That includes improving remote learning as well as reopening classrooms for in-person instruction, Cardona said. He said mitigation strategies such as testing were critical for reopening but declined to say that all teachers should be vaccinated before that happens.
Assessing students’ academic progress this spring is important to determine where inequities have grown in the education system, Cardona said. States should get a chance to weigh in on federal testing mandates, including how accountability is attached to results, he said.
Cardona said he’s committed to preventing discrimination against LGBTQ students, including transgender students’ participation in school activities like sports. The White House issued an executive order last month instructing federal agencies that prohibitions on sex-based discrimination covered LGBT people, including students — a reversal of President Donald Trump’s position.
During Cardona’s tenure as Connecticut education commissioner, the Trump administration pressured Connecticut schools to drop policies allowing transgender student athletes to compete on teams matching their gender identities. Republicans on the committee pressed him over concerns that the Biden administration’s position would disadvantage students assigned female at birth.
Cardona said the Supreme Court made clear last year that gender-based discrimination is illegal.
“It’s non-negotiable to make sure our learning environments are free from harassment and discrimination for all learners, including our LGBTQ students,” Cardona said.
Lawmakers from both parties stressed the need for the government to offer more support to career and technical education as an alternative to a four-year college degree.
Cardona, a graduate of a technical high school in Connecticut, said he wants middle and high school students exposed to potential careers earlier and given opportunities for hands-on training. Those experiences could make students “more likely to go back to college and get a degree in something they’re passionate about,” he said.
There was less consensus over calls for broad student forgiveness. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said the law is clear that the Biden administration could immediately cancel thousands in loan debt for student borrowers. Burr said that would stretch the Higher Education Act “beyond recognition.”
Cardona committed to Warren that he would do everything in his power to provide immediate relief to borrowers, although he didn’t take a position on administrative debt cancellation. He said students who don’t complete degrees and Black borrowers are disproportionately struggling to pay off student debt long after they leave college.
“That’s exacerbating gaps. That’s perpetuating the haves and have-nots,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org