First lady Jill Biden talks with a student at the school. POOL/New York Times
First lady Jill Biden, left, with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden on March 3. POOL/New York Times

On his first day on the job as U.S. Secretary of Education, Meriden’s Miguel Cardona traveled back to his hometown Wednesday to showcase for the nation, alongside first lady Jill Biden and the leader of one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, how the district where he spent his career opened its schools for students to learn in-person and full-time amid the pandemic.

“It feels great to be home,” Cardona said during his visit to Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. “Today, the Silver City shines. … I want to commend you all on such a great job. The students of this school have been in school since [Labor Day] when the system opened every day, all day — and it was done in a manner that protected the students and the staff and their families. That deserves a round of applause.”

“Teachers want to be back. We want to be back,” said Biden, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College. Her students recently told her they want to return for in-person learning. “And, you know, I think that’s how we all feel, but we just know that we have to get back safely.”

Socially distanced and masked kindergarten students were practicing writing with their teacher while others worked on laptops as the first lady approached. Their T-shirts noted their year of college graduation: 2037.

“It’s so nice to be here. I’m Jill. Hi,” Biden said when she introduced herself to a teacher. She complimented a little girl who’d worn a teal gown under her T-shirt for the occasion.

First lady Jill Biden talks with a student at the school. POOL/New York Times

Cardona fist-bumped the students and talked to them about ninja turtles.

As the students tittered and chattered, their teacher told Biden and Cardona that the children have been back in school since August and that she always has extra masks on hand in case someone forgets theirs.

Getting more schools across the country to offer students the opportunity to return for in-person learning is a top priority of President Joe Biden’s administration. The president has set a 100-day timeline to get the majority of the nation’s schools open.

Cardona is keeping track of how much time remains for him to get the job done: 72 days.

Supporters wave at Jill Biden passing by in a car in Meriden. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Meriden — an urban school district with 8,118 students, most of whom come from low-income families and are Black or Latino — is somewhat of an outlier in both Connecticut and throughout the nation for offering students the opportunity to return to school full time.

Here’s how they did it.

The district’s superintendent and key staff came in on a Sunday early in the pandemic to work on a plan with the local teachers’ union for how to safely reopen schools, set up a system to track student and staff COVID-19 infections, and establish thresholds for when schools would have to close.

The extra funding the district received from the federal government helped the district purchase masks, cleaning materials and other supplies. The district started with a summer pilot program for some of its most vulnerable students to return for some in-person instruction. As the school year approached, the district had buy-in from its staff and teachers’ union to return full-time.

“We have all battled together non-stop to keep this in-person option going,” Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni said. “There were no secrets or mysteries. This was our plan. This is what we were doing, and this is the guidance we were getting from the [local] health department. We didn’t hide from the data. The data on infections is shared in dashboards that anyone can go on our website and see.”

His district also got significantly more agreement from hesitant parents to send their children back to school for in-person learning, which has been a problem in other districts. Overcoming the confidence gap among some parents and school staff is a remaining hurdle in the push to reopen schools.

Given the option to return for in-person learning, only half have done so in Bridgeport, 41% in Hartford and 15% in Waterbury.

In Meriden, 68% of students are learning in-person, a percentage that continues to rise, district data show. A teacher in one of the classrooms that Biden and Cardona visited Wednesday returned to teaching in-person recently because more students are returning to the building for class.

The district decided not to cut extracurricular activities, as some districts have done as part of their efforts to catch up on lost instruction time. This, Benigni said, was key to luring students back.

“We know school is much more than six hours a day of academics, and that it’s all the other things that students embrace and enjoy, so we didn’t stop our music programs or sports programs or arts programs. Those are still an option for students,” he said.

Cardona — a former teacher, principal and state education commissioner — highlighted the importance of these programs during his visit Wednesday.

“Across the country, future Lin-Manuel Mirandas are sitting at home instead of going to the drama club. Future astronauts like Mark Kelly are sitting at home instead of going to a science lab to spark that wonder of science. We must continue to reopen America’s schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible.”

Along the way, there have been some students and staff in Meriden who have tested positive for COVID.

Since the school year began, 9.6% of the districts’ staff and 3.1% of students have tested positive for COVID-19. Presently, however, there are no students or school staff at Benjamin Franklin Elementary recovering from infection or quarantining after being exposed to the virus. Districtwide, currently 0.1% of students have tested positive and are in quarantine, and 0.09% of school staff have tested positive. State officials hope now that teachers and more people are getting vaccinated every day, fewer COVID infections will show up in students and staff.

Members of the Velez family account for four of the COVID-19 infections in the district.

Maria Velez, who works as a climate specialist at a high school in the district, was on leave from her job as she prepared for shoulder surgery when she became ill with COVID-19. She believes she got the infection from one of the pre-operation doctors’ visits.

The virus spread quickly in her house to her husband, who also works in a Meriden school, and two daughters who attend school in-person. It didn’t spread in her daughters’ classrooms, however.

“Fortunately for us, we came out OK,” she said while standing outside the school Wednesday to cheer on Cardona, who is a local celebrity in Meriden.

Now recovered, she wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“We had to go back to work. My kids needed to go back to school. They have to live life. We don’t know how long this is going to last, so we learned how to adapt,” said Velez.

Gina Pavao decided to send her kids back to school at Franklin Elementary. She needed to go back to work at the Save-A-Lot convenience store, and her son and daughter missed their friends. Their grades were also suffering as she struggled to help them do their work at home.

“It was stressful being home with them. As long as they wear their masks and use the sanitizer, I trust the school knows what they are doing,” she said, standing outside the school.

A coalition of parents set up school desks and a dry-erase board outside the school on Wednesday to remind onlookers that Black and Latino children are being left behind during the pandemic.

A classroom is set up outside to remind federal and state officials not to forget about Black and brown children. The protest took place at an intersection in Meriden where Jill Biden drove by. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

“I’m out here today because I want to congratulate and welcome Jill Biden, and I also want to congratulate Miguel Cardona and his position. But I also want to make it clear that we are going to hold [Cardona] accountable,” said LaShawn Robinson, who has four kids in the Hartford Public Schools system and organized the demonstration with Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel. “You have questions to answer when it comes to my child’s education and other kids in the community.”

Hartford began offering its students full in-person learning this week.

A CT Mirror analysis of state data shows that districts that are learning in-person are more likely to be predominantly white. Black and Hispanic students are most likely to be attending school online a day or two a week. State data also show that students attending remotely are missing almost twice as many days as those attending in-person.

The state releases data each week that show the number of students in each learning model that have tested positive for the coronavirus, but those figures offer little context, since they do not show the rate of students in those learning models who have been infected. A CT Mirror analysis of last week’s data show that infection rates in all learning models are substantially under the 1% mark, the level above which community spread occurs, according to public health experts. However, the infection rate was higher for students learning in-person, with 13 out of more than 10,000 students infected last week, compared to a rate of six out of 10,000 students learning online and nine out of 10,000 learning in the hybrid model.

Research released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that schools have not been super-spreaders.

“In-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission. Although national COVID-19 case incidence rates among children and adolescents have risen over time, this trend parallels trends observed among adults. Increases in case incidence among school-aged children and school reopening do not appear to pre-date increases in community transmission,” the federal agency concluded.

Biden said the president’s omnibus COVID-19 response bill, which directs more money to schools, will help get more schools like Benjamin Franklin Elementary reopened.

“We just know that we have to get back safely. I think that once we get our teachers vaccinated and we get the American Rescue Plan passed … schools like this can have the money to be back safely,” she said during her visit.

Cardona said it is priority No. 1 for him, too.

“As your secretary of education, I pledge to do everything I can to listen, to learn and to act in the best interests of students every single day. It’s important to safely reopen schools. It’s critical that we do it as safely as possible and as quickly as possible.”

In an opinion piece published in U.S.A. Today on Wednesday minutes after Cardona was sworn in, he laid out that plan.

That path includes issuing science-based guidance and communicating it with teachers and staff, parents, and students.

“We knew there was no one-size-fits-all solution — that different districts know their schools best and would adjust to local COVID-19 data. My approach with our nation’s schools will be the same,” he said of his strategy as education commissioner in Connecticut.

While state commissioner, Cardona repeatedly said all the state’s K-12 schools should reopen, but he resisted calls to order superintendents to hold in-person classes. Instead, his department issued a plethora of guidance for district leaders to follow so they could open their doors, and used federal pandemic aid to buy masks, plexiglass and other protective equipment. 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” that school closures are causing, releasing data that show the state’s most disadvantaged students are missing twice as much remote school as their peers attending in-person, with only 4% of the students attending the state’s 10 lowest-performing districts 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.

Who is Connecticut’s new education commissioner?

After a unanimous vote from the state Board of Education Wednesday, Lamont appointed Charlene Russell-Tucker to take over for Cardona as Connecticut’s interim education commissioner.

Since November 2019, Russell-Tucker has acted as one of the state’s deputy commissioners, overseeing educational and wellness supports and resources in the department.

“I am humbled and grateful to Governor Lamont and the State Board of Education for placing their confidence in me to serve Connecticut’s students, families, and educators in this role,” Russell-Tucker said in a statement. “I will use this opportunity to continue to advance the work of the agency and our educational partners to ensure a seamless transition once a permanent commissioner is named.”

A pool report is included in this story.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

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