Education secretary pleads for safe person school: NPR

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona accompanies the North High School Marching Band on the Cowbell at a cheer rally Monday in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

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US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona accompanies the North High School Marching Band on the Cowbell at a cheer rally Monday in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Tim Gruber for NPR

Miguel Cardona walks the halls of Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin with a gray mask, crisp blue suit, and the easy familiarity of a teacher or principal, despite being neither the neither.

He walks into Mrs. Gallaher’s first grade class to greet the masked children at school and asks about their favorite playground equipment (“swings!” By a landslide), then checks in with the students from Mr. P’s fourth year long enough to talk Pokemon, drop a few bad dad jokes (Cardona has two teens at home in Connecticut), and hand out chocolate coins.

“If you look very closely, it says, ‘Eat me before recess today,'” Cardona jokes about the gold foil wrapping of the coins. Kids love it, both the chocolate and that weird dessert of an adult champion at any time of the day.

Although Cardona is a former fourth-grade teacher and principal, let alone the former Connecticut State Education Commissioner, he visits Locust Lane in a very different capacity: as the most senior official in the education, the United States Secretary of Education.

Eau Claire was the first stop on a ‘back-to-school road trip’ that saw Cardona cross five Midwestern states this week in a lush purple bus, speaking of the Biden administration’s efforts to help children return. safe to desks and hopscotch grates that many haven’t touched in over a year.

Students and staff recite the Pledge of Allegiance ahead of Monday’s cheering rally at Locust Lane Primary School.

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Students and staff recite the Pledge of Allegiance ahead of Monday’s cheering rally at Locust Lane Primary School.

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After the classroom visits, there is an outdoor cheering rally, where Cardona promises to share the children’s requests for more playtime and art time with President Biden. When he’s done, he grabs a cowbell and knocks with the North High School Marching Band playing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”.

“The best sign of recovery as a country is listening to school groups,” Cardona told the crowd.

The point of all this choreographed fun is to reassure anxious students, families, and educators that classrooms are safe again – and to celebrate schools that have embraced the secretary’s message of universal masking and vaccines for all. eligible people. Because under this boiling surface is a strong surf, fed by the delta variant.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 226,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 during the week ending September 16 – the third highest number of child cases in a week since the start of the pandemic. And a regional breakdown of COVID-19 cases among children shows the return to school in August coincided with an explosion of new cases in southern states where many schools were or were unable to. wanted to require masking of students or vaccination of staff. The Midwest, Northeast, and West all saw much smaller increases in child cases.

Students at Locust Lane lobbied the secretary for more recess, art and gym time.

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Students at Locust Lane lobbied the secretary for more recess, art and gym time.

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The secretary combined optimism and political pugilism

“The reality is that we still have people making decisions that don’t protect children,” Cardona said later in the afternoon. He’s seated at a quiet table on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, a few feet from the calm waters of Lake Mendota.

Cardona worked as a teacher, director and state education commissioner before becoming secretary of education.

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Away from the crowds of children, emerges a very different education secretary, quite serious and clearly frustrated.

“Unfortunately, you can view the data in places that are more relaxed about [safety]. Their emergency rooms are full. Their pediatric intensive care units are full, which is different from other places like [Locust Lane Elementary]”Says Cardona.” The children are happy. We are not talking about interrupted learning. We can joke about what’s for lunch. “

It’s worth noting that even at some schools that require masks, Delta has found a way in, forcing students and staff to self-quarantine and prompting some districts to rethink their online options. In Locust Lane, a few dozen students are currently in quarantine, despite the district’s mandate to mask, which school officials say is unpopular with some families. Still, Superintendent Mike Johnson says their mask policy has also helped limit infections to a few dozen confirmed cases in the district of about 11,000 students.

Cardona has been education secretary for just over six months, and the pandemic has so far dominated his tenure. He tried to balance optimism – about the safe return of children to school – with the occasional outburst of political pugilism. The universal masking and efforts to immunize students and staff, which Cardona sees as integral to this safe return to school, have shocked many districts, and Biden’s Education Secretary has urged several repeated punches in the name of public health.

Cardona, center, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Cindy Marten, right, chat with staff at Locust Lane Elementary School.

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Cardona, center, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Cindy Marten, right, chat with staff at Locust Lane Elementary School.

Tim Gruber for NPR

When several states banned schools from requiring students to wear masks, the secretary announced his department would investigate them for potential violations of the civil rights of students with disabilities. When Florida withheld salaries from some school officials who defied the state’s mask-warrant ban, Cardona gave the district a grant to cover the costs.

But local officials have a lot more power over schools than the education secretary, and this week’s bus tour – to Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan – gives Cardona a chance to do his masking and vaccination evangelism on the road. For politicians and parents who say these choices are deeply personal and should not be forced on anyone, the secretary has three words: “Schools are communities.

Cardona pauses and repeats.

“Schools are communities. What an important lesson we have to teach our children: My actions affect someone else. And unfortunately, it’s not the kids who have trouble with that. It’s the adults. The kids. are OK.”

School officials are attacked for masking

A lot of adults are certainly not doing well. The fight for universal requirements for masks and vaccines in schools has become so toxic that earlier this week Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, felt compelled to issue a statement defending school officials who are attacked in their communities for following federal security guidelines.

Cardona greets a student with a punch at Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire.

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Cardona greets a student with a punch at Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire.

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“We will never back down from the importance of free speech, but we cannot – and will not tolerate – assaults, intimidation, threats and violence against superintendents, board members and educators, ”Domenech wrote.

Meanwhile, Cardona continues his balance – between playing the punch and the chief comforting for anxious students, families and educators, and playing hard with the heads of state who he says are prioritizing the public safety policy.

The day after her stop at Eau Claire, as Cardona visited a vaccination clinic outside of Chicago and checked in with more students (and another marching band), her department also sent a warning letter to the Texas, saying the agency was investigating whether the state’s ban, preventing schools from requiring masks, violates students’ civil rights.

Producer Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.

Cardona speaks to students and staff at the Locust Lane Cheer Rally. Eau Claire was the first stop on the secretary’s “Back to School Road Trip” that took him to five Midwestern states this week in a lush purple bus.

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