Charlene M. Tucker-Russell, the education commissioner-designate
Charlene M. Russell-Tucker, the education commissioner-designate

Charlene M. Russell-Tucker was introduced Thursday as the choice of Gov. Ned Lamont and the state Board of Education as the commissioner of education at the board’s downtown Hartford offices, then she hurried to the Capitol for a meeting with a governor who was finalizing a decision on vaccination mandates.

Lamont was scheduled to announce at 4 p.m. whether a coming order on COVID-19 vaccination mandates for state employees will extend to K-12 school teachers in the fast-approaching school year. He said Wednesday that a mandate for state employees would come on Thursday.

On her way through security at the Capitol, Russell-Tucker paused when asked if she would join Lamont the vaccination briefing, then acknowledged her first day as commissioner-designate was likely to be a memorable one.

“We’ll meet whatever the challenge,” she said.

Russell-Tucker, a career employee of the department, was the deputy commissioner when President Joe Biden tapped Lamont’s first commissioner, Miguel Cardona, as the U.S. secretary of education. She has been acting commissioner since March.

A half-hour after the school board formally recommended her to Lamont, she joined the governor at a ceremonial signing of a bill that authorizes low-cost loans to students who commit to teaching in one of Connecticut’s 33 highest-need districts.

“Charlene, I just saw that Connecticut is ranked the second-best public school system in the country. Second-best? Come on,” the governor teased.

But he quickly pivoted to his commitment to preserving in-person education as Connecticut experiences another surge in COVID infections, even though the state has one of the highest rates of vaccinations in the U.S.

“This is just an incredibly important time. I was so proud of the fact that … in-person education was available last fall,” Lamont said, adding the administration was “working hard to be able to make sure we can do that for everybody yet again. And we will.”

The state Department of Education has worked closely with public-health officials on guidance for masks, cleaning and ventilation during the pandemic.

“We’re truly joined at the hip with the Department of Public Health. We meet almost daily, maybe sometimes more than once a day to work together,” she said.

Lamont said there is no substitute for in-person education, and he already has announced he will continue a statewide mandate on masks for K-12 students, saving local school boards and superintendents from making that call.

As did Cardona, Russell-Tucker advocated for classroom teaching as the pandemic unfolded last year, then provided guidance as infections spiked and many systems shifted to a hybrid of virtual and classroom teaching.

A 20-year employee of the department, Russell-Tucker oversaw its Office of Student Supports and Organizations Effectiveness before becoming deputy commissioner. She also had supervised programs involving student health, family and community engagement, nutrition and safety, magnet and charter schools, adult education, and special education.

Her nomination is subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.