Credit: Twitter/SecCardona
Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, with students in Los Angeles on July 14, 2021.

As I shook hands with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona this week, I felt a sense of familiarity reminiscent of what I imagine students feel when they come across an educator with a shared background.

Upon hearing my last name, which I pronounce as it is spoken in Spanish (VAHS-kes), Cardona returned the sentiment (MEE-gel Ca<R>-Donah). In that brief moment, so much was unspoken: Cardona, a child of Puerto Rican immigrants who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, and I, the daughter of Cuban immigrants who long ago perfected the art of Spanglish, code-switched.

It’s those small connections — real and perceived — that can make a classroom feel inviting for students. It is, in part, why Cardona visited Fairfax High School in Los Angeles — to promote building positive relationships through mentorship and community volunteering, which is at the center of the Ready Set initiative, launched by the Creative Artists Agency Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

Cardona sat down with EdSource for a brief chat to talk about the pressing issues in education facing California and the nation as schools slowly emerge from a pandemic that continues to evolve.

The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Do you think there will come a time when Covid vaccinations will be required for K-12 students?

It could be likely. I don’t have a say on that right now. I want to trust my health experts to make those decisions. They’ve done a heck of a job to this point, helping us guide reopening efforts. In Connecticut, we would not have reopened if it weren’t for a close partnership with the health experts. So I have confidence in them and their ability to decide to require it if that’s what they decide. But without question, the best strategy to get schools to safely reopen 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.

Where do you think school districts should be spending new relief dollars as it relates to closing the learning gap among students, which has widened during the pandemic?

Equity and stakeholder engagement is something we want to see in plans. We know the pandemic made things worse, right? The gaps were there before. I was talking to the teachers earlier today, and they were telling me how some communities have so much more than others. And that was just made worse. The (American) Rescue Plan helps level the playing field. So what I want to see is making sure that all students have access to in-person learning, have access to low class sizes for students with disabilities, who have suffered more than most other groups of students. Let’s make sure that we’re doing right by our students, giving them the support that they need, the technology that they need. For students — like children with autism — that require a little bit more one-to-one, let’s make sure that when they come back, we have a special education program that works well because the funds are there. That’s my expectation that we have that in the fall.

There are some who are concerned about spending the one-time windfall on programs that cannot be sustained. What do you say to those concerns?

We’re coming out of a crisis. Our kids are hurting. They need help now. And we have to give them what they need now. That also means that some of these things might look different now than they do four years from now. It might be that I talk to a Boys and Girls Club YMCA to partner with our schools for two to three years and use the funding to support that. Or we’re going to accelerate our wraparound services, and we’re going to provide a wide net for families, not just students, because if the families are OK, then the students will be OK.

We have to do more for families, give them more opportunities to reengage mental health access for the students that need it. And we’re going to be better. But we also need innovative leadership that thinks about sustainability but also bold leadership to say, “What don’t we need four years from now? What can we give up? We got a chance to hit the reset button. What do we want to focus on?” I hope the social and emotional well-being of students gets higher on that list.

There has been lots of talk about helping college students with non-tuition costs. Do you think doubling the Pell Grant awards is a good idea?

I’ve been an educator for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen an investment. It’s always, “Do more with less.” … There’s a $1,400 increase in Pell Grants with the American Families Plan. The budget includes another $400, so together over $1,800 in increase in Pell. The president, I think, has more than a down payment on making sure that we’re increasing Pell and giving more opportunities to students, not to mention the ability to have community college for all — for free. That’s something that the president’s committed to. In terms of access, the (American) Families Plan does more to provide access, whether it’s through community colleges or through the Pell, than anything I’ve ever seen as an educator.

The government this week announced a temporary easing of the verification process tied to Pell Grants. That process seems to be a pressure point for so many underrepresented students when applying to college. Do you think there will be ongoing help beyond this year?

I appreciate you noticing that, to be very frank with you. We have a responsibility at the agency to do everything in our power to remove barriers and provide access. And sometimes that means looking at our policies and revisiting the “whys” behind our policies and ensuring that, post-pandemic, we’re helping our students be as successful as possible, which means removing barriers.

The other area that I really want to focus on is public service loan forgiveness. That seems like it’s one obstacle after another. So we have to make things user-friendly. We have to keep the students at the center, and that’s what we’re trying to do at the agency. Make sure that we’re student-centered in our access, our policies and how we advocate for our students.

Considering the drop in enrollment at community colleges in California and across the country since the start of the pandemic, going into the fall, what do you think colleges should be doing?

Wherever possible, safely returning students to the classroom. There’s no substitute. I talked to a president of an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities)  recently who said that their biggest concern is the drop-off of students. They’re working really hard this summer to engage those families and those communities to see how the students are doing, first and foremost, because as you know, (many) community college students are parents, they’re working parents. They have other things going on. There are adults now, thinking, “What do I want to do now?” They might want to go back to getting re-skilled.

Community colleges have the funds to do that. Half of the $40 billion in the American Rescue Plan for colleges is direct student aid. That’s intended to get those students back in and address not only the tuition but those other barriers that prevent them from going in. I spoke to a community college student who couldn’t go to school if it weren’t for what the college did to help her with fees, the tuition and some of the other expenses that she had to get back into school. It’s working. The funding is there. In-person (instruction), that’s one of the best strategies. Vaccination is another. When colleges are giving vaccinations to students and giving them access to it and the community, it makes it more likely that they’re going to be able to come in in person because they’re going to feel safer.

. . .

As we said our goodbyes, Cardona made one last gesture: “Cuídate,” he said in Spanish, asking me to take care. For a nation of students who increasingly come from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, having a top official redefine what is mainstream is powerful.

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