Secretary Cardona's Remarks on the "Return to School Roadmap"

Secretary Cardona's Remarks on the "Return to School Roadmap"

August 4, 2021

Thank you, Mayor Scott, not only for your kind introduction, but for the work you and the city have done on behalf of the students and residents here in Baltimore.

In partnership with your schools, the medical health system and the health department, the City of Baltimore is an example of the type of leadership it's going to take to not only get through this pandemic but to thrive on the other side.

Frankly, your leadership is saving lives and it should be commended.

It's a pleasure for me to be here in Baltimore, where I know educators, students, and families are looking forward to and preparing for the start of a new school year. We know how important it is for our children to have the chance to learn in-person in their classrooms.

We know the strong, nurturing, relationships that can be developed in welcoming and affirming school buildings.

I recently heard a beautiful story about a child at Graceland Elementary here in Baltimore. She arrived at the school speaking no English. When she first started, she cried every day. But because of the relationships she was able to develop through in-person learning, the support that she received from her caring teachers, and the partnership her parents and school forged for her success, she is happy now and thriving. This story shows what's possible in our schools.

And so nothing brings me greater joy than seeing so many kids excited to be back in their classrooms, re-engaging with one another and with their teachers.

The energy I felt when I walked into this class – is why all of us who do this work do what we do… We are driven by our students…It's also why we feel a sense of urgency to reopen schools for in-person learning and bring as many students back into physical classrooms this fall.

That back-to-school feeling? Any teacher will tell you it's a whole vibe. A chance to start fresh, a chance to renew, a chance to build on the progress that was made in the last school year and dream about what's possible in the future…And we need to dream a little right now … to envision a safe, healthy, vibrant, and joyous return to school…Then we need to make that vision a reality. It's a national imperative, and we know we can do it.

Over the past year-and-a-half, as a nation, we experienced struggles like never before. I know you did in Baltimore, too.

Your school community -- your teachers, students and families, school staff, and administrators -- were challenged in ways none of us ever imagined. But from that struggle, came resilience, support and appreciation.

We must use our renewed strength to focus on what matters most: beating back COVID, getting our students back in the classroom—together—and making our education system better than it ever was before. Making sure EVERY student gets the excellent education they deserve…

So far, more than 180 million people in America have been vaccinated against COVID, including millions of students 12 years and older. That's key to winning the fight against the pandemic and to fully reopening schools. However, we are now experiencing an increase in the Delta Variant. This uptick is concerning. The difference this year is that we can control the virus.

If you have not yet gotten vaccinated yet, do it now. This is our NUMBER ONE line of defense, and I encourage every student age 12 and over to get vaccinated as they head back to school. Our children should not have to compromise any more of their educational experiences or time in school due to increases in community spread…So, get vaccinated. Use life-saving mitigation strategies. We know what we need to do - it is on us to do it…

Speaking of doing what is right, I'm proud that the Biden-Harris Administration has made significant investments in education: $130 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to support school reopening efforts across the country. This infusion of vital federal resources is helping more students access vaccinations and summer learning opportunities right now.

And these resources will help more students access school counselors and mental health professionals this fall – especially those students in the hardest hit communities. This is all in an effort to eliminate inequities in our education system made even worse over the last 18 months…

So to the students in Baltimore and across the country, we have a message for you: We're on the road to recovery – and we're not going to give up on you.

That's why I'm excited that this week, the Department of Education launched the Return to School Roadmap, a set of key resources for educators and school leaders, parents, families, and communities to help give every student the opportunity, not just to participate, but to thrive in in-school learning.

We know that going back to school means more than just opening the doors and turning on the lights. It means welcoming families back, answering their questions, making them feel comfortable and safe, and being responsive to the impacts that the pandemic has had on all of us. Our goal cannot be to go back to the system we had before the pandemic. That system had flaws. For students like the ones I met a little while ago - we must do better…

Doing better requires student-centered leadership. It requires bold action. And it requires all of us – leaders, educators, and communities working together to rethink what success looks like. To provide the best opportunities and supports for America's students, and students right here in Baltimore.

The resources the Department of Education released will help us do just that. The Roadmap will help lead students on a path to return to classrooms where they are safe, where they're supported, and ready to succeed.

Our Roadmap includes three "Landmarks" -- priorities that are critical to a safe and successful reopening:

One - Protecting the health and safety of our students, educators, and staff. Health and safety HAS to be number one…

With $130 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to support school reopening efforts, we have the resources available to make every student and parent feel safe in returning to in-person learning this fall.

I'm echoing President Biden's call for every school district in every state to use these funds to get more people 12 and older vaccinated…That's the fastest and best way that we can combat this virus and get back to school safely… Hold a school-based vaccine clinic. Continue to push, incentivize, and be creative. Enlist the partnership of trusted community leaders, our youth, our faith-based communities. Use your American Rescue Plan funds and the Federal Pharmacy Program to get this done… I know it's hard work, but we need every district, every superintendent, every leader in every community to take this on, so we can get more students and community members vaccinated and so we can defeat this virus. We can rise to the occasion. We can be the leaders our students deserve. We can do this.

And while we continue to get more students and adults vaccinated - please wear your masks indoors. We know that masking and other prevention strategies work. So, let's use them.

We owe it to our students who are waiting to get back into classrooms. We owe it to those families who experienced trauma, families whose children may not be old enough to get vaccinated yet, and to all the working families who want a safe place for their children to return to this fall. We owe it to that student who needs to see their school social worker, that student who relies on school breakfast, that student who is home alone and needs to be back with their school family.

We aren't out of the woods yet. But if we get vaccinated, and if we keep using science-based prevention strategies, we can be. We cannot let mask fatigue, pride, or politics get in the way of doing what is right for our students.

We also know it's vital for parents to FEEL that their children are going to be safe. That means that we have to communicate with families more than ever, and do so respectfully and in their home language. It means recognizing the fears families are facing and talking honestly about how our schools are going to keep their children safe AND make our classrooms welcoming for all. They need to be inclusive places where students want to be this fall…

The second landmark on the reopening roadmap is prioritizing the social, emotional, and mental health of our students and educators.

We know that schools provide so much more to students than simply a place to learn. Our teachers are our students' families. Our schools are their communities…

Students have suffered so much over the past 18 months. We know it's hard to process and heal, and we can't unlock a student's potential unless we also address the needs they bring with them to the classroom each day. As educators, it's our responsibility to do that… For many students, schools are the only place they can access mental health professionals, school counselors, nurses, and support structures they need – including their friends - to help them through the trauma of the last year. That's why bringing students back for in-person learning is so important.

I'm proud that across the country, we're seeing American Rescue Plan funds being used to prioritize our students' mental health needs and by hiring more of these invaluable education professionals… We know that in order to excel academically, students need a strong social and emotional foundation…

The third landmark on this reopening roadmap is accelerating academic achievement.

Every parent and caregiver across the country knows how challenging the last year was for our students. It was tough for us adults, too – with many of us taking on the role of parent and teacher at home. I want to tip my hat to all the parents in the room…

Over the last year, what was made clear is that sitting behind a screen simply isn't the same for a child as learning in a classroom. And we know that many students may have been disconnected from their school communities for weeks, months, and for some, over a year.

It's our responsibility—as leaders and as educators—to do everything in our power to help our students not only catch up, but to excel. This is especially important for communities hardest hit by the pandemic, who may have been furthest from the opportunity to succeed to begin with. At the Department of Education, we want to aggressively attack opportunity and achievement gaps and challenge what Pedro Noguiera calls the normalization of failure. To put simply, the status quo from before the pandemic just isn't acceptable.

But to do this, we need to do everything we can to get as many students as possible back to learn in-person, full-time this fall.

It means investing in tutoring programs, extended learning options, and other opportunities to accelerate learning during the school year.

And it means leading boldly to disrupt patterns of inequity in our educational systems…The resources are there, the urgency is there, now is our time to act.

If prioritized together, these three Landmarks in the Return to School Roadmap will enable more students and communities to heal, learn, and grow together this fall.

But as I've said many times – we can't go back to the way things were in March 2020. Our students deserve more.

The American Rescue Plan built a strong foundation for us to recover. It's allowing schools across the country – like the one here in Baltimore – to bring their students back into the building and address those critical priorities I described just a few minutes ago.

But we owe it to our students to Build Back Better.

That's why we must pass the President's Build Back Better Agenda.

We have an opportunity right now to transform students' educational experiences. We can build truly equitable schools that finally close gaps that have long existed in our education systems. We can set all our children up for success by investing in our strongest asset – our people – and ensuring America wins the future.

The Build Back Better Agenda includes historic investments that would start with pre-kindergarten and provide an additional four years of free public education for every student…

It will give every family access to free pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds…

It will give every student access to two years of free community college…

It will increase the maximum Pell Grant by nearly $1,500, helping millions of low- and middle-income students afford higher education. This includes our Dreamers…

It will rebuild our crumbling schools and community colleges by investing in infrastructure, so all our schools and community colleges have the labs and technology our kids need to prepare for the future. After all, infrastructure is equity…

It will invest in underserved and under-resourced communities by increasing Title I funding by $20 billion. That helps level the playing field!…

It will provide more families with access to high-quality, affordable child care which, for too many families, is currently out of reach…

It will support our teachers by investing in their professional development, and allow us to build a diverse teacher pipeline so more students can learn from educators who look like them and who have diverse backgrounds and experiences. And it will expand our pool of educators trained to best support students with disabilities and multilingual learners…

It will provide greater access to career and technical education for more students – so we can connect our high schoolers with job training and help them land well-paying jobs in high-demand fields. We must evolve our high schools—the Build Back Better Agenda will allow us to do this!…

It will provide over $3 billion in IDEA funding for children and families with disabilities…

And it will support the needs of the whole child – through historic new funds to hire school counselors, social workers, nurses and school psychologists, and to fund more community schools that provide wraparound supports for our students and their families… Through all of these investments, we truly can Build Back Better for every single student and family across America…

As an educator, I know we've gotten used to doing more with less. With the Build Back Better Agenda, we can turn the page on that mentality.

These resources will allow us to build an education system more equitable and excellent than any we've ever seen, where every student – no matter their race, ethnicity, income, disability status, age or background, is set up to succeed.

So let's get Congress to advance this agenda. And let's bring the bold leadership, innovation, and creativity necessary to meet this moment of urgency…

As I reflect on the last year, I recognize that for many of you, it was your most difficult year as an educator. I don't need to tell you that this upcoming year will be your most important.

Let's pass the Build Back Better Agenda and commit to our students and families the best year ever! They deserve it.

I know that if we keep students and teachers like these at the center of the conversation, and if we commit to their success, America - together, we got this!