Secretary Cardona's Remarks on School Reopening and 100 Days of the Biden Administration

Secretary Cardona's Remarks on School Reopening and 100 Days of the Biden Administration

April 30, 2021

Good morning.

Nearly a month ago, I started this reopening tour at Tynan Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts.

During my visit, I met Teagan Rose, a student in Mr. Burdman's STEM class. Teagan called me over and asked me to sit down with her while she played with legos, and she started chatting away. She told me how happy she was to see her friends in class, how Mr. Burdman helped her with legos and other things she was learning in class. Then she started singing "Let it Go" from Frozen.

When I met Teagan Rose, it reminded me of our why – the reason why we do our work day to day. It's our job to help children. That's what today and our work to reopen schools is all about.

Thank you Principal Sykes, Assistant Principal Richardson, educators and support staff. Our educators have always been extraordinary, but they've done truly heroic work over the last year. And our support staff who often go unnoticed but do the critical work of being the backbone of our schools.

Yesterday marked the Biden Administration's 100th day, and my 59th day as Secretary of Education.

While 100 days may not seem very long, from January 20th to today represents nearly one third of an elementary or high school student's school year.

I want to share a bit about where we are on school reopening. Earlier this year, President Biden set a goal to reopen the majority of K-8 schools during his first 100 days. I'm proud to say that we met that goal.

As of the end of February, over 80% of K-8 schools were offering in-person some form of instruction for their students. About half (49%) of K-8 schools were open full time for in-person for all students. This was before mass vaccinations for educators. This was before CDC updated their guidance.

Since then, President Biden prioritized vaccinating educators. As of the end of March 80% of educators had received at least one shot. President Biden also delivered $10 billion in testing for K-12 schools. And in March and April, at least 20 large districts reopened their doors for expanded in-person learning options, including Indianapolis, Albuquerque, New York City, and others.

Being here at Amidon Bowen Elementary School shows the real impact of bringing students back to in person learning. Every smile we see from a student, every hand that goes up to answer a question – that represents progress. Every relationship that's formed, that's progress.

But as much as I'm proud of the work we've done, anything under 100 percent means we have more work to do.

That's why I needed to go out on the road to see schools and communities myself. So I could see what's happening on the ground and hear what's working and not working.

Over the past month, I've been to 9 schools across 8 states and DC. I've seen successes like: Amidon Bowen Elementary School here today, White Plains, where 90% of elementary students are back in person. 70% of high schoolers are back in person. While our primary focus was bringing K-8 students back, I'm proud of the success of our high schools.

But in my visits I've also seen schools that have faced enormous challenges. Challenges like outdated buildings with old ventilation systems, reduced capacity on buses which limit students that can come in. I've seen challenges in communities where community spread was high, which prevented students from coming in to school. And I've seen the trauma students and families experienced - because of COVID and because of issues that existed before the pandemic - that created fear in sending children back to school

We have work to do.

So my message on this tour has been: Help is Here

Even during these unprecedented challenges, what I've heard from an overwhelming majority of students and educators is that they want to be back in classrooms.

Now, with the American Rescue Plan, states have the help they need, with access to unprecedented resources to get schools reopened

$81 of $130 billion already distributed to states. This money is available right now for districts across the country to: update ventilation, invest in PPE and other measures to keep student and staff safe, hire additional staff, not just teachers but support staff like custodians and bus drivers – the backbone of our schools. And it can be used to support the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students. We need to make sure social emotional support is the foundation of our reopening.

Make no mistake, we need to make sure this money is going to the students who have been hit hardest, students with disabilities, students of color, students in areas with high community spread where in person options didn't come early enough.

In addition to distributing the first $81 billion in ARP resources, the Department released the application for states to access an additional $41 billion dollars.

They'll also use that application to let us know how they plan to use ARP funding, and include voices of students, educators, parents and stakeholders in that process.

Today, we also released a Best Practices Clearinghouse, where states and districts can see examples of what's working communities like theirs across the country who have successfully navigated reopening and are supporting students and educators. We know teachers learn best from teachers, kids learn best from kids, and states learn best from states.

With this progress and these unprecedented resources, we can't wait to get more schools open full time. This spring. Every day we wait is another day of potential lost instructional time. Lost time to engage with their friends, practice band or theater, or even sing "Let it go," like Teagan Rose in Boston.

As Dr. King said, we cannot lose the fierce urgency of now.

But reopening our schools means much more than turning on the lights. What we've seen as schools have reopened is that access to in-person instruction is not equal, and we must reopen with equity at the center of all our decisions.

The majority of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students in elementary school are still learning fully remotely, compared to just 24% of white students. Even in schools where students were offered full time in person instruction, 22% of Hispanic students, 27% of Black students, and a full 42% of Asian students are still enrolled in remote learning.

We must make sure we create welcoming schools for all students across the country.

We must be laser-focused on addressing these disparities, so all students – from every background, circumstance, and zip code have access to the same opportunities that your children or mine have.

That starts with getting more schools open this spring. It continues with us listening to the needs and concerns of our communities. Not just for reopening. We must rethink how we're engaging with communities and families. Let's not make the goal to go back to what it was before March 2020. We must provide more leadership at the local, state, and national level to build trust in our communities, and make sure they know that the best interests of our students is yours and my top priority. This is our moment to hit the reset button. We can take our students to a higher level than ever before.

In the coming weeks, I'll be reporting back to the White House about what I learned on my travels. I'll use examples like Amidon Bowen, to update President Biden on the progress we've made and to show how the American Rescue Plan is being put into action to deliver real-world impact for our students.

I'll continue to share and elevate best practices, so schools and districts looking for guidance can be connected with communities across the country who have overcome similar challenges.

We'll be helping schools develop innovative, creative, and engaging summer learning and enrichment opportunities, to help make up for lost instructional and extracurricular time through our Summer Learning Collaborative – with a particular focus on serving the students most impacted by COVID.

The pandemic has sharpened our sword to fight inequities in education. These challenges made us smarter and bolder. Let's take on those inequities. We must continue to do that as I continue to push to get more schools opened this spring. Every day that passes is a lost opportunity.

Over the past month, I've seen schools large and small, in cities, suburbs, and small towns. I've seen parents concerned with sending their kids back but I've seen tears of joy.

But where I've seen success, there was one common thread: every stakeholder working together with intentional collaboration. They didn't always agree, but they always had students at the center of every decision.

So today, I'm challenging every state and every school district to embrace that shared goal and provide as many students as possible with safe in-person learning this spring.

The federal government is providing resources. We're providing guidance. We're providing examples. And we stand ready to help however we can.

But it's ultimately up to the efforts of all of you at the local level to get this done for our students.

If we center our efforts around what's best for children and our students and our communities, we will act with urgency to get more schools open this spring.

We will address gaps that have been exacerbated over the past year.

We will build our education system back better than it ever was before, and provide innovative, creative learning opportunities that address all students' needs, not just some

Our students, our teachers, and our communities, and Teagan Rose are counting on us. And if we do that, we will build brighter futures for every student in this country.