Sec. Cardona on combating COVID’s impact on student mental health, forgiving student loans

Leading child health care groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics — said Tuesday the pandemic has triggered a “national state of emergency” in mental health among U.S. youth, and policy makers need to act. The Education Department issued new guidance for how to address the crisis in K-12 schools and bolster mental health. Secretary Miguel Cardona joins Amna Nawaz with the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The question of how much more money should be provided for higher education, including two years of free community college, is one of many points up for debate among Democrats and the president right now.

    The spending bills also include significant new money for K-12 schools. That's in addition to money already being given out in pandemic relief legislation.

    Those bills have also directed funding to support the mental health needs of students.

    Amna Nawaz has a conversation about all of this with the secretary of education.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Leading child health care groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, said today the pandemic has triggered a — quote — "national state of emergency" in mental health among America's youth and that policy-makers need to act.

    The Education Department has issued new guidance for how to address the crisis in K-12 schools, as well as how to spend billions in relief funding to bolster student mental health.

    Secretary Miguel Cardona joins me now to discuss.

    Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.

    Let's talk about the guidelines issued today. How do they address this crisis right now?

  • Miguel Cardona, U.S. Education Secretary:

    Well, I appreciate the Academy of Pediatrics making those statements, because it's critically important we continue to work together to give our students what they need.

    And, right now, our students across the country need more support, mental health support, more social-emotional well-being checks. And we are pleased at the Department of Education to be able to respond in a way that addresses what we have been hearing from students, from educators across the country as we have visited schools.

    They need more social-emotional support and more access to mental health support. So, the manual, the guide that we put out today provides not only links to good research around mental health supports, but also wonderful examples from across the country of what educators are doing to provide access to students in ways that maybe weren't available just two years ago.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, tell us about some of those examples.

    I mean, I don't need to tell you the crisis is already here. So, I think a lot of people will wonder, what good do guidelines and additional funding do?

    Just to underscore some of this — you know these numbers — but suspected suicide attempts for teen girls are up 50 percent over last year, emergency visits for mental health emergencies up 30 percent for teens, up 24 percent for kids aged 5 to 12.

    What is the Department of Education doing that addresses this now?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    Yes. Well, that's what we're doing.

    We have examples of what's happening now, what you can replicate in your schools today. The American Rescue Plan funds are there already. So we know the resources are there, the urgency is there. Now we have in this manual that you can find online on our Web site, accessible to all, but, in particular, it gives practical tips on what you can do today, in the classroom, in a school, in a district, in a state.

    And these are proven strategies that have worked in other places. We're lifting up those practices, and we're making it accessible to all. We don't want to be in the business of providing long documents that are not practical for educators. Educators needs support now.

    In this document, they're going to get that. They have the resources. They have the strategies that will come up — that have come up from educators. So now it's time to make sure that our schools reflect the needs of our students, and that we provide the support that our students need.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I'd love to ask you about masking in school and some of the mandates. You have said that you are reluctant to withhold federal funding from states that won't enforce mask mandates in school.

    If that masking — as you have said, it protects kids, it protects teachers, it protects families, so why not do everything you can to require that masking in schools?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    I believe we are.

    And I believe withholding funds for students, while I do reserve the right to do that, will only take that student who is now in an environment that is not as safe as possible and prevent that student from getting reading support or getting a social worker because they have experienced a lot.

    What we are doing is working closely with those district leaders who are doing the right thing, at their own risk, to make sure that they're protecting students. So, we're working with them. We're providing funds if their funds are being cut.

    But we're also, through the Office For Civil Rights, investigating cases where we believe students' rights to education are being violated. So we are doing that. And what we're finding throughout the country is that those places that follow the mitigation strategies, promote vaccinations, and are working to protect students and staff have less disruptive learning, and students are able to stay in classrooms.

    And the impact, the mental health impact, is less too, because they're seeing less hospitalizations and less death around them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But what about mandatory vaccinations? You have said that you back mandatory vaccinations for older students. We could soon see FDA approval for younger kids aged 5 to 11.

    Do you support mandatory vaccinations for elementary students as well?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    I'm pleased that we're making progress with vaccinations and that our youngest learners are going to have access to it.

    As a father, the first thing I did when my children were eligible was get in line and give them that opportunity to be safe and to protect those around them as well. So, I encourage all families to have their children be vaccinated. We know that, if it's getting approvals, it's safe for students.

    And it should be something that parents get their — for their children. And it should be something that, as a community, we do to protect one another.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you also about student debt, which is on a lot of people's minds.

    There has been a freeze on student loan payments during the pandemic. It's impacted, what, some 40 million or so borrowers. The Biden ministration extended that to January of 2022.

    So, does that mean that those people should expect to restart payments in February?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    It does.

    But what we have done is make sure that we're providing a long enough on-ramp to support our borrowers. What you're going to see President Biden and this whole team is really focused on making sure that our students are at the center of the conversations.

    And that doesn't just mean our K-12 students. It means our higher ed students. Together, we have forgiven over $11.6 billion in student debt. We're making sure that we're protecting our borrowers, and we're making sure that they have information, and that the processes to get public service loan forgiveness, which we're going to fix, is simple.

    Students shouldn't have to have more hoops to jump through in order to get what what's rightfully theirs. So, we're going to continue to protect our students. We're going to continue to prioritize our borrowers and make — fix some of the systems that were broken.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mr. Secretary, if I can just follow up, though, a lot of people will say that you have forgiven billions in debt so far. It's been for a small slice of borrowers so far.

    For these tens of millions others, the pandemic is not yet behind us. The recession is still with us. And people are still very much struggling.

    So the question is, if there's a surge in delinquencies, for example, what are you doing to — or what are you — how are you preparing to handle that?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    Right.

    We're revamping our processes to make it more user-friendly to support our borrowers, but also to communicate more effectively what options they have and what type of support they can receive.

    The goal is to help our borrowers, not add more stress. But we know that that process is going to require that we fix systems that were broken here, and really make it more student-centered. And we're going to continue to do that. We're going to listen to our students, listen to our borrowers. We're going to do the very best to protect our borrowers, but also provide pathways for them to be successful in repayment, but also in whatever life circumstances they have.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Briefly, before I let you go, I know that you have been leading the charge to figure out if there's a way for the Biden administration to cancel student debt.

    A lot of pressure from within the Democratic Party to do just that. Have you delivered your recommendation to the president yet?

  • Miguel Cardona:

    We're working with the White House and with the Department of Justice on that.

    And what I will tell you is that we're not waiting for that to do what's right for our students and for our borrowers. As you saw a couple of weeks ago, we announced the public service loan forgiveness. We're going to fix that. And we're going to make sure that our — those who were offered public service loan forgiveness 10 years ago, that we follow through on those promises and with the intention of Congress.

    So we haven't slowed down. We're going to continue to do that. And while those conversations continue, it doesn't mean we're taking our eyes off making sure that everything we do at this department is student-centered.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, joining us tonight.

    Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time.

  • Miguel Cardona:

    Thank you.

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