U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visited a public school in Baltimore on Wednesday morning, urging districts throughout the state to do everything they can to bring students back to the classrooms full-time this fall.
“We know the strong, nurturing relationships that can be developed in welcoming and affirming school buildings,” Cardona said at Graceland Park-O’Donnell Heights Elementary Middle School in Baltimore.
“Getting students in person is the best equity lever we can use as educators,” he said.
During a tour of the school’s summer enrichment program, Cardona met a student named Andrea, who did not know how to speak English when she first arrived at the school and cried every day, he said.
But “because of the relationships that 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, she is thriving,” Cardona said. “This story shows what’s possible in our schools.”
Cardona introduced the U.S. Education Department’s Return to School Roadmap, which encourages school districts to prioritize the health and safety for students and educators, invest in social and emotional support for students and outlines ways to “accelerate academic achievement.”
State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who is running for state comptroller, attended the event.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) and Council President Nick Mosby (D) were also present.
The roadmap advises that schools follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance, which recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status” and at least three feet of distance in classrooms.
Cardona urged Maryland school districts to continue their indoor mask policy and communicate with hesitant families about their health and safety strategies.
“We cannot let mask fatigue, pride or politics get in the way of doing what’s right for our kids,” he said. “We also know it’s vital for parents to feel that their children are going to be safe — that means we have to communicate with families more than ever before.”
Baltimore City Public Schools will require masks for all staff and students, whether they are vaccinated or not.
The roadmap also encourages school districts to use federal pandemic relief funding to get more people 12 and older vaccinated before the school year begins.
Cardona mentioned the fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus, which is much more transmissible, even among vaccinated people. But although “the uptick is concerning, the difference this year is that we can control the virus,” Cardona said, exhorting everyone who hasn’t done so to get vaccinated.
“Our children shouldn’t have to compromise any more of their educational experiences or time in school due to the increase in community spread — so get vaccinated,” he said. Last week, President Biden called on school districts to host pop-up vaccination clinics so that more children 12 years and older can get vaccinated.
However, Cardona did not mention mandating vaccines for eligible students and staff members before the school year begins. The University System of Maryland, which oversees 12 public universities, is mandating all of its students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine this fall, with exceptions for medical or religious reasons.
As of Tuesday, just 29.1% of the country’s 12 to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to data from the CDC.
The U.S. Education Department’s roadmap comes shortly after Maryland education and health officials issued an updated guidance that “strongly recommends” but does not require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks when they return to school in the fall. Local school systems and child care programs will be able to set their own policies.
The state’s guidance outlines recommendations with the goal of supporting “opening for in-person learning at full capacity,” which aligns with the U.S. Education Department’s roadmap goal. It further encourages schools to focus on “layered prevention strategies,” or multiple prevention strategies together, instead of curtailing in-person learning if they cannot implement a certain strategy.
Cardona not only encouraged school districts to bring students back into the classrooms, but also implored schools to not simply aim to go back to the system before the pandemic because “that system has flaws.”
“We cannot go back to where we were in March 2020 — is that clear?” he shouted. The crowd of teachers, parents and state and city leaders cheered back. “The status quo before the pandemic is not acceptable.”
“We have an opportunity right now to transform students’ educational experiences. We can build truly equitable schools that finally close gaps that long exist in our education system,” he said.