During a visit to Los Angeles on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona encouraged schools in California and elsewhere to help students heal after a school year that many spent in isolation.
Cardona also stressed the importance of in-person learning this fall at both K-12 schools and community colleges so students don’t suffer any further academic or social losses. Almost all of California’s school districts are planning to reopen for full in-person instruction this fall, though the same can’t be said for all of the state’s 115 in-person community colleges. Some are planning a hybrid fall semester, with a mix of in-person and online classes.
In an interview with EdSource, Cardona encouraged schools to spend the federal stimulus money they receive through the American Rescue Plan Act in ways that will support students’ emotional needs. Cardona also said that even though the stimulus money is a one-time windfall, schools shouldn’t hesitate to spend those funds immediately.
“The reality is we’re coming out of a crisis,” he said. “Our kids are hurting. They need help now.”
Cardona was at Fairfax High School near West Hollywood on Wednesday for a field day event hosted by the READY SET initiative, a national tutoring and mentoring program. The initiative, created by the CAA Foundation, aims to recruit volunteers to help students across the country who have suffered learning loss as well as social and emotional losses during the pandemic. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of the Creative Artists Agency, a sports and talent agency.
The secretary of education, who was appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate earlier this year, watched Wednesday morning as elementary and middle school students played sports and learned dancing. One group of students played baseball on the turf of Fairfax High School’s football stadium. At another station, students practiced dances popular on the social media platform TikTok.
Other students took part in basketball drills with Jason Collins, a former player in the National Basketball Association. Cardona at one point joined in, attempting a few jump shots.
In earlier remarks, Cardona stressed the need for students to engage with each other as much as possible over the summer after they spent most of the 2020-21 academic year in isolation and learning from home.
“Summer learning is something that we all have to lock arms and do the very best to get our students reengaged and reconnected. And not just with academics, but really with each other. Programs like this really establish those relationships again after this pandemic,” he said.
Mario Serrano, one of the mentors in the program, said that when he first started volunteering with students this spring as in-person activities began to resume, many students were reserved. He attributed that to the pandemic and the fact that most students had little in-person interaction with one another during the school year.
Within a few weeks, though, he noticed the students starting to get more comfortable with one another. He said his responsibility as a mentor is “just to be someone who they can talk to, open up to. Because a lot of times, at home they don’t have the opportunity to talk to someone.”
Being able to safely attend school in person this fall will also be key to helping students, Cardona said.
In response to questions from EdSource, Cardona said it’s not within his purview to say whether states should require students to be vaccinated from Covid-19, saying those decisions should be left to health officials. But he added, “Without question, the best strategy to get schools to reopen safely is to ensure that the vaccinations are available to all who are eligible. In the communities where they are not as highly vaccinated, we’re seeing more illness, we’re seeing more hospital visits. We just have to get the message out to those who are still a little hesitant.”
Cardona said the same is true for college students, and he encouraged colleges to do whatever they can to help their students get vaccinated. The University of California recently determined that all students must be vaccinated to return to its 10 campuses, while the 23-campus California State University and many of the community colleges await a decision on whether vaccines will be given full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All vaccines administered in the United States have been approved for emergency use.
In California and across the country, enrollment at community colleges steeply declined during the pandemic. Cardona said getting students safely back inside physical classrooms will be “one of the best strategies” to reverse enrollment declines.
“Wherever possible, safely returning students to the classroom — there’s no substitute for that,” he said.