Bleach Denim

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona vs. the Delta variant

With help from Rishika Dugyala and Teresa Wiltz

What up Recast family! Happy Friday! There’s a lot going on: Today is the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the Tokyo Olympics near their conclusion — and for students, parents and teachers it’s the homestretch of summer break. With that, let’s jump in.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona knows the classroom. Prior to becoming the nation’s education chief, he spent two decades as a public school educator, getting his start as a fourth grade teacher in his hometown of Meriden, Conn.

The task before him today is the most significant challenge of his career: pushing to safely reopen schools as the highly transmissible Delta variant threatens to upend yet another school year.

On Monday, Cardona unveiled the Department’s “Return to School Roadmap“ giving K-12 schools guideposts for welcoming students back — including urging those who are 12 and older to get vaxxed and to wear masks.

His disarming charm — along with that megawatt smile — was on full display Wednesday in Baltimore at an event to champion the return to in-person learning. Standing at the lectern, he was empathetic, telling the audience of teachers and school administrators, he understands 2020 was “the most difficult year as an educator.”

“But,” he said, “I can tell you with complete assurance this will be the most important year.”

This of course belies the chaos and confusion over school reopenings brewing across the country — which Cardona has limited authority to control. Some school officials are pushing to impose mask mandates in direct violation of state laws or executive orders banning such directives.

Cardona sat down with The Recast from the library of Graceland Park-O’Donnell Heights Elementary Middle School in Baltimore, where we discussed the challenges of the coronavirus and schools, how his Puerto Rican roots inform his approach to his job — and his stance on critical race theory.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE RECAST: You spent a lot of time in the classroom before moving up. What are some of the biggest differences from working in the classroom to now being the head of the Education Department?

SECRETARY CARDONA: In the classroom, I had 20 students, 25 students in front of me. And I was directly linked to the communication with their parents, with them, helping them grow academically, socially and emotionally and building a sense of community in my classroom.

I have to be honest with you, there are a lot of similarities in this role. Now, I’m just doing it for, you know, 50 million students. But the difference would be [my] opportunity to engage with students has to be very intentional. And I have to make sure that I’m getting out into classrooms because that, to me, is what keeps me grounded and keeps me connected to what I need to do as secretary.

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THE RECAST: You’ve been traveling the country, going around to schools like the one we’re in here in Baltimore. What are you seeing and how are you feeling about the preparedness of schools in the upcoming school year?

SECRETARY CARDONA: What I’m seeing is they want to go back, everyone wants to go back. … Everyone is waiting for this to be done.

I’m seeing better programming now for the summer than I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve been in education for a long time. I’m seeing double the number of students in summer school programs.

We learned a lot during the pandemic on what’s possible. And I’m seeing it at every level in the classroom, at the school level, at the district level. So I feel really optimistic that we’re going to continue to improve in education.

THE RECAST: Obviously, we’re in a pandemic, the Delta variant is raging and vaccines for students 12 and up does not cover all students. So what is the biggest advantage for bringing them back into the classroom?

SECRETARY CARDONA: Yeah, without question, in-person learning is the best way they learn, the best way to build community.

Is the [virtual] learning the same? It’s not. Some students probably learn better when some of their learning happens through online or blended learning strategies. But schools are more than just places where academics are learned — they’re like second families to students. And so the push for in-person learning is not only academic. It’s also to build that social and emotional well-being of students that schools provide, not to mention making sure students are fed, making sure they have after-school programs where they can engage with one another and providing a safe place for students to be when their parents are not home. So there’s so much to it.

To your point about the Delta variant: Yes, it’s spreading and yes, it’s more contagious. We learned last year how to keep students safe. The mitigation strategies work. The road map provides clarity and resources for families, for schools, for students on how to keep school safe. So [schools] can function with students in the building, with masks, with proper ventilation. So yes, we can do it.

THE RECAST: You’re not just talking to a reporter, you’re also talking to a parent of two children that are under 12. So neither are eligible for the vaccines. So what do you say to parents, like myself, who you are asking to send unvaccinated children into an environment that I no longer control?

SECRETARY CARDONA: Let me tell you, I hear you. That’s why I’m getting out there.

I had to make that decision for my own high schoolers last year. And my wife and I … before the vaccine, we had to make that decision. My children have been in school since August 2020. Hybrid, but they’ve been in. So I wouldn’t expect from parents something that I wouldn’t do for my own [children].

Schools have lower transmission, lower [confirmed infection] numbers, than communities, right? So if we can control the community spread, the school issue will go away.

I will tell you, parent-to-parent, make sure that the school where your children attend is following the mitigation strategies. Make sure that you’re doing your part outside of school, because what good is it if you’re wearing masks in school and then you go on a play date, and kids are running around freely?

THE RECAST: Going back to the Delta variant, we’re seeing new data suggesting that it’s more contagious, even spreading to those who are vaccinated. How do you square the hesitation on the part of parents about not wanting to send children back into an environment where spread is possible? What do you say to them?

SECRETARY CARDONA: I’m gonna be honest with you. There’s risk in all we do. There’s risk in keeping your children home. But we’ve been able to mitigate the risk when we have students in school, when you have masks, we have good ventilation systems, when you have distancing, where our students understand why we’re doing this.

I know in the Black and brown communities who have experienced [the virus] worse and who maybe, in some cases, never felt that connection with the school. … But that’s on us, again, as educators, to reach out into the community.

THE RECAST: In states like Texas and Florida, governors are issuing bans on mask mandates. How do you implement your road map when there are governors that are putting items like those in place?

SECRETARY CARDONA: Well, I mean, look at the data. The states where we’re quick to rush away from what we know works, we’re seeing a greater spread. And that concerns me, because those are my students, too.

It’s one thing to feel a certain way, it’s another thing to create policy that could lead to disruption in learning. There’s a fork in the road: You’re either helping students get back to school safely or you’re hurting it.

THE RECAST: Do you have plans on talking to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to express your point of view?

SECRETARY CARDONA: I’ve spoken to about six or seven governors in the last three or four days — red and blue. And they’ve been excellent — all of them — about wanting to get our kids back in school. We shared some ideas of pop-up vaccine clinics, and let’s try to make it fun, get the kids involved, get local leaders involved. And it’s been a good reception. And yes, I do have calls planned for both Florida and Texas.

We’re in this together, man. We’re in this together. This cannot be political. … Listen, I don’t want to wear masks, either. But now I realize why we have to put them back on — even though I’m vaccinated.

THE RECAST: Being of Puerto Rican descent and also coming up in public education, not being proficient in English before starting school, does that experience inform how you approach the job?

SECRETARY CARDONA: Yeah, of course it does, just like all of our lived experiences influence what we do. I think, for me, I often tell multilingual, multicultural people, “Your bilingualism, your biculturalism is a superpower.”

It makes me a little more able to understand when someone’s coming from a totally different perspective than me. … specifically around second language learning and growing up bicultural.

I think that’s another learning piece that often gets underestimated: the importance of embracing who you are, because you’re unique, and you bring something to the table. So, yes, it influenced how I got here and how I lead.

THE RECAST: I’ve got to ask you about critical race theory. It’s certainly been part of the culture wars, playing out. The administration seems to want to promote learning of all of history. Where do you stand as education secretary?

SECRETARY CARDONA: It’s funny, because that’s become almost like a proxy for division. And, you know, we’re not going to play that. We know at this point in our country, we need not only healing from Covid, but we need healing from division. Teaching about the beautiful diversity of our country … is a beautiful thing and all students benefit from [that].

I’m always going to promote ensuring that we’re addressing inequities boldly and that we’re promoting tolerance and celebration of differences through our curricular materials. But I also know that the Department of Education doesn’t have a role in curriculum development. My experience as an educator, and I’ll tell others, when you embrace others and let students see themselves shine in the materials, they do better. They’re more engaged. I’ll stick by that all day.

But I also don’t want to engage in a distraction from what we know is working is the Build Back Better agenda, the “School Reopening Roadmap,” that’s where my focus is. We’ve got to get kids back in school, all kids across the country. That’s the focus.

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OK family, we’ve got a few quick updates to share with you and some Weekend To-Dos.

While the passage of the Democratic-backed voting and ethics bill remains up in the air, POLITICO’s Marianne LeVine and Nicholas Wu are eyeing the infrastructure bill — which could drive more funds for voting standards and voting by mail.

While progressive Nina Turner lost her bid for an Ohio congressional seat this week to Shontel Brown, another progressive is mounting a primary challenge to Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, reports POLITICO’s Maya King.

The Olympics is drawing to a close and the U.S. men’s sprint team is in a rare position of coming home with no gold medals! Meanwhile, the U.S. men’s 4×100 relay team failed to qualify for the finals. Legend Carl Lewis was not happy.

And check out the GQ profile of WNBA superstar Candace Parker who weighs in on being the first woman to grace the cover of NBA2K video games and the politics of USA Basketball.

Twenty years after “hip-hop’s Princess Di,” died in a plane crash over the Bahamas, Aaliyah’s music is now available for streaming.

Another book we’re adding to our list: “Radiant Fugitives,” a new novel by Nawaaz Ahmed, traces the three generations of a Muslim Indian family from Chennai to California.

Barack Obama turned 60 this week, proving that age ain’t nothing but a number. A new HBO documentary series explores his legacy as the nation’s first Black president.

Bad Bunny + Aventura = a whole weekend vibe.

TikTok of the Day: This glam kitchen guacamole tutorial is everything.