What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How the U.S. plans to address educational inequities, teacher burnout and school shootings

More than half of public schools around the country are back to full time in-person classes. But many school districts still are using distance or hybrid learning, and there are many questions ahead about what it will take to reopen more fully in the coming months. Amna Nawaz looks at those questions and more with Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than half of public schools around the country are back to full-time, in person classes. But many school districts still are using distance or hybrid learning.

    And there are many questions ahead about what it will take to reopen more fully in the coming months.

    Amna Nawaz looks at those questions and more with the nation's top education official.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the Biden administration wants to expand the map of schools that are fully reopened nationwide. And the president has pledged to address racial and economic inequality in education, which widened during the pandemic.

    The latest COVID relief bill includes $130 billion for schools to help reach those goals.

    For a closer look now at these critical issues, we're joined by the secretary of education, Miguel Cardona.

    I want to begin by asking you about vaccines and kids. More than 30 states have now opened up eligibility to kids 16 and older. Some colleges are now requiring students to get the vaccine before they come back to school.

    Do you support those kinds of requirements?

  • Sec. Miguel Cardona:

    Thank you for having me on.

    First of all, I'm happy to see that we're able to provide more and more vaccines across the country. Ultimately, we know that they're effective and they're helping us reduce spread and ultimately get back to some sense of normalcy.

    We're working very closely with our partners at CDC to make sure we follow the guidance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But do you think schools should be requiring vaccinations for kids coming back?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    At this point, unless it's a requirement that comes out of CDC, I don't want to jump the gun here. I know they're looking at the issue, and we will be sure to support

    And we will be sure to support the decisions that are made from our health experts, keeping in mind that this is a health pandemic. We know it's an educational emergency. But we're always going to follow the lead of our health experts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Keeping in mind that it's a pandemic, as we speak here, cases are rising in many parts of the country. Do you think that schools could face mass closures again if cases continue to rise?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    You know, that's a great question.

    And I think it's really important to know that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. There are so many positive signs that we are able to recover. However, I have seen this before in my time in Connecticut. Once we relax a little bit too much in the community, we see higher — higher numbers of COVID in our schools, not necessarily because they're spreading in schools, but because they're spreading in the community, and our students go into schools.

    So, it's critically important. If we want to keep our schools open, which we need to keep our schools open, we have to make sure we follow those mitigation strategies out in the community, as well as in the schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about some of the racial and socioeconomic inequities that existed long before the pandemic, but have really been made worse over the last year.

    We have a related question coming in from a member of our Student Reporting Labs network. This is a question from 17-year-old Janice Aragon. She's a student in Brentwood, New York.

    Here's Janice's question.

  • Janice Aragon:

    My school is one of the biggest in New York state, with over 5,000 students, many of which are low-income and minority.

    I want to ask, what will you do to help bridge the gap in education quality for disadvantaged communities like mine?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mr. Secretary, what would you say to Janice?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    That's a great question.

    I am serving as secretary of education to really address those issues. And, as Janice pointed out, many of these issues existed long before the pandemic. We need to be bold as we reopen our schools and reimagine learning to make sure that we don't go back to a system that had the same inequities that existed before the pandemic.

    We have an opportunity now to hit the reset button. The American Rescue Plan provides funds and support and guidance around what practices we should be following. And we need to be bold about addressing inequities that have existed in our system and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What kind of specific steps do you think you might take with some of those funds that you just mentioned?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    Sure. So, ensuring that we — our students have robust summer learning experiences, ensuring that we have social-emotional support for students, because we know, if students — especially students who are dealing with the effects of the trauma that we just experienced together as a country, some students, especially in those underserved communities, have experienced it worst.

    We know the data around Black and brown mortality rates with COVID-19. So, when we reopen our schools, making sure that we're providing the social-emotional supports, but also ensuring that we're providing the academic enrichment that our students will need.

    Many of these students had to be looking at a screen for a year. We have to make sure that we have better interventions, that we have smaller class sizes, that we have the academic enrichment and support that our students need, not only this spring and next year, but for years to come, to close whatever gaps were worsened due to the pandemic, smaller class sizes for those students that need it most.

    Our students with disabilities need additional support. We know that Zoom learning isn't the same for students that require that one-to-one support or that require hand-over-hand manipulation if there are students that have sensory issues.

    So there's a lot of work to be done, and our educators are up for the challenge.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we know that Zoom learning has caused a lot of students to fall further behind, which leads to my next question about standardized testing.

    Your predecessor in the previous administration allowed that standardized testing to be canceled because of the pandemic, right? There were concerns that the data would be flawed, that the disparities to access were just so great.

    A number of people are asking you to do the same thing this year, to cancel that standardized testing because the data wouldn't be reliable. But you have refused to do so, so far. Why?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    So, I think the previous secretary was absolutely correct in canceling last year.

    As a matter of fact, I was one of the first states that applied for that, because we knew coming right out — the pandemic happening in March, and we weren't prepared.

    A year has passed. And our learners, when we're talking about addressing achievement disparities, there's some difficult decisions we have to make. And one of them is making sure that we do everything in our power to assess which students have been affected and how much they have been affected, so that the policies and the resources that are coming out of the American Rescue Plan can be aimed at those students that need it most.

    Now, there's no teacher in the country that needs a standardized assessment to tell them how their students are doing. But in order for policy-makers and state leaders to make sure that the funding goes to those students that were impacted the most, every bit of data helps.

    This is not the end-all, but it's definitely going to be helpful in order to make good policies and make sure that the resources go to those students who are affected most.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about gun violence?

    Can I ask you, as schools open back up ,as more students return, are you worried about more mass shootings in schools like the one we just saw in Knoxville?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    As a father, it always crosses my mind. I have children in school.

    And, as a former principal, especially during the Sandy Hook massacre, I was a principal maybe 45 minutes away. And of course it crosses my mind. And it's something that reminds me of the important work that we have to do, not only to ensure physical safety of our students, but that emotional safety of our students and our communities.

    So, it does cross my mind. I want to make sure it's very clear that our schools have adapted to the realities out there, as unfortunate as they are. And they do have safety processes. They have protocols for visitors.

    And I want to let the audience know that, as we reopen schools, the emotional safety of our student is going to be something you're going to be hearing a lot about, but the physical safety of our students is something that, as educators, has been ingrained in how we do business.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mr. Secretary, at the end of this year, among those people exhausted are teachers. They are stressed. Many of them are leaving their positions or taking early retirement.

    What can you do from your role to help address teacher burnout?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    First and foremost, we have to acknowledge what educators have been doing since last March.

    From I think it was March 11 or March 12, they went from one way of teaching or serving as a parent educator or serving as a school counselor to a totally different way the next week. And they did it without missing a beat. Yes, we had to learn together as a country. But it happened from one day to the next, literally.

    And they have worked twice as hard to try to make it so that they're serving those students in front of them and serving the students on the computer. At the same time, I visited schools, and I saw that happening across the country.

    So, we have to acknowledge that. We have to make sure that we're taking care of our educators, that their emotional well-being is also taken into account as we think about reopening schools. We have to make sure, I think, in general that we pay our educators what they should be paid.

    I think parents recognize — I know they appreciated our teachers before, but they recognize the challenge that it is to serve as an educator. And I think we need to really continue to honor the profession, but be realistic that, as we come out of a pandemic, there are supports that they're going to need to be successful as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Miguel Cardona:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment