If selected to become President-Elect Joe Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona would be tasked with getting public schools throughout the country reopened ASAP — a challenge he took on as Connecticut’s education commissioner with mixed results.
Roughly one-third of Connecticut’s public school students currently have the ability to attend school in person full-time.
How Cardona handled school reopening is of particular relevance as Biden considers him for the job. One of Biden’s top three COVID-19 priorities for his first 100 days in office is to “reopen the majority of schools.”
“If Congress provides the funding we need to protect students, educators, and staff; if states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,” Biden said during a Dec. 8 press conference.
Cardona’s name has emerged as one of three top contenders for the job along with Leslie T. Fenwick, dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education, and North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras, the Washington Post and CNN reported. On Friday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote Biden urging he select Cardona, who is Puerto Rican.
On Monday, the online news source Axios reported that Biden was leaning toward selecting Cardona for the post.
The president-elect is expected to make a decision about the position before the end of the week, according to sources.
Since announcing in late July that the state would leave reopening decisions to local school districts, Cardona has walked a political tightrope as he tries to balance the needs of parents, who saw their children struggle to learn at home last spring, against well organized teachers’ unions, which have called on the state to close schools until their safety demands are met.
Although Cardona has repeatedly said he believes all the state’s K-12 schools should reopen, he has so far resisted calls to order superintendents to hold in-person classes. Instead, his department has issued a plethora of guidance for district leaders to follow so they can open their doors, and used federal pandemic aid to buy masks, plexiglass, and other protective equipment schools need to open safely. The administration has also allocated federal funds to purchase laptops and internet access so that every student has the ability to learn from home.
Cardona has also used the public spotlight to call out the “education emergency” school closures are causing, releasing data that shows the state’s most disadvantaged students are missing twice as much remote school as their peers attending in-person and only 4% of the students attending the state’s 10 lowest-performing districts are being offered the opportunity to attend in-person learning full time. The administration has also tracked COVID-19 cases in districts throughout the state, which Cardona regularly points to as proof that the virus is not spreading in schools.
The department is collecting this data so it can catch problems early, officials say.
“Closing schools alone would not reduce the mitigation strategies, would not reduce the transmission risk in other places,” Cardona said during an interview in November, adding that transmission might even worsen if thousands of kids are at home or in the community. “In school, we know that students have their mitigation strategies, like distancing and facial coverings. There’s no way to ensure that’s happening outside of school when they’re not with us… What we’re learning… it’s families in already challenged communities that are under-resourced, that need more support. So by doing these things, we’re not only bringing the issue up, we’re using that to guide whatever resources we distribute.”
This middle-ground approach has frustrated some.
“Why are so many young children and children with disabilities shut out of school in Connecticut?” tweeted Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate, on Nov. 30, the day New York City announced its schools would be opening their doors for students with disabilities.
“Connecticut needs to take a much closer look at how it is handling discretionary school closures,”she tweeted later that day after Gov. Ned Lamont’s announcement that he would allow restaurants to stay open and not order schools to open.
Cardona has also taken considerable heat about not intervening in New Haven’s decision not to reopen its schools, despite 55% of parents and guardians reporting they would return their children to school and hundreds of signatures on a petition urging the school board to reconsider. New Haven, where one out of every 26 students in Connecticut is enrolled, is the state’s largest school district.
“Younger children stand to lose the most from an additional extended period of remote learning and we can get them what they need to thrive while also posing the minimal risk to them, their teachers, their families, and the community,” a group of 14 parents wrote in an opinion piece in the New Haven Independent in August. “Other districts in Connecticut plan to send their kids back to school in a few weeks. Private schools in New Haven will do the same thing. Public school students in our city deserve equal consideration.”
Instead of ordering New Haven to reopen its schools, the administration has instead tried to publicly shame officials there.
“The schools in the suburbs stayed open. The schools in New Haven never opened and that broke my heart that those kids in New Haven — overwhelmingly Black and brown [students] — have not had the opportunity to go to a classroom to be with the teacher, to be with their friends, to learn in person, for I think eight months at this point, and that’s one of the worst inequities I can see,” Lamont, a Democrat and an early Biden supporter, said last week.
Pushback from unions has been a countervailing force.
Most recently, on December 10, leaders from the state’s teachers’ unions stood outside the state capitol with a lengthy scroll of paper containing the names of the 14,000 Connecticut educators, school employees and community members who signed a petition calling for Cardona and Lamont to order schools closed until they implement all the safety mandates included in the unions’ “Safe and Successful Schools Now” plan.
“To put it mildly, I’m afraid for the next week,” said Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association. “With surging infection rates and vaccines for the general public not available until after the new year, the state must shift to full-time remote learning until at least mid-January to ensure that in-person learning is a safe strategy for our students and our teachers, not an experiment, not a gamble.”
Since Cardona’s name was thrown in the mix as a contender for the job, teachers’ unions in Connecticut have said he would be a good pick, while some who are frustrated that their schools remain closed have privately wondered why he would want the job given his dedication to local control.
“Miguel Cardona’s formative experience as a teacher and administrator has been critical to his accomplishments as Connecticut Education Commissioner. He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic,” the unions said in a joint statement. “While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration. If selected as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education — light years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record.”