Education secretary warns that politicizing masks could lead to in-person school disruption

CNN | By Betsy Kein and Maegan Vazquez | August 5, 2021

(CNN)Education Sec. Miguel Cardona on Thursday warned Americans not to let adult politics get in the way of schools reopening safely and remaining open without disruption, specifically expressing concern about states that are preventing schools from instating mask mandates.

“The tools are there, it’s just — are we following the mitigation strategies?” Cardona told reporters during the White House press briefing. “You know what I’m worried about? The adult actions getting in the way of schools safely reopening. Let our educators educate. Let our school leaders lead. And we can get our schools reopened safely. Another thing I’m worried about that I want to share is complacency. Let’s not go back to the school system of March 2020.”

Those “adult actions,” he suggested, include policies that “go against what (US Centers for Disease Control an Prevention) recommendations are.”

Cardona warned that those policies, like others that prevent schools from imposing masking requirements, could lead to school disruptions.

“I’m worried that the decisions that are being made that are not putting students at the center and student health and safety at the center is going to be why schools may be disrupted. So we know what to do. And, you know, don’t be the reason why schools are disrupted, because of the politicization of this effort to reopen schools. We know what works. We have to keep our students safe. We have to keep our educators safe,” he said.

Cardona said he had calls out to officials in Texas and Florida — the two states which made up one-third of the country’s total Covid-19 cases last week and where leaders have banned mask mandates in schools.

“At the end of the day I want to work with Texas I want to work with Florida. I want to make sure those students have access to in-person learning,” Cardona said, adding that “it’s critically important that we have conversations with governors directly, with state chiefs directly.”

“We want to be an ally and make sure that we’re supporting our students. At the end of the day we’re talking about students being in classrooms. They’ve suffered enough. It’s time for them to be in the classroom without disruptive to their learning,” he added.

Cardona reiterated his message during an interview with CNN’s Ana Cabrera later Thursday, saying any Covid-19-related school closures would be “disappointing.”

The Department of Education, he said, will work with Florida and Texas, adding, “They’re our students, too. We’ll get farther if we work together.”

“The message, really, is look at the data,” he said, going on to applaud Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he regrets a law banning mask requirements in schools.

Cardona expressed frustration when asked to react to a letter from Leon County, Florida, School Superintendent Rocky Hanna outlining concern about cases in his school district.

“That’s frustrating to hear that letter. This is preventable. This isn’t Delta variant, this is policies that are preventing students from getting to the classroom safely,” he said.

He added, “My heart goes out to the superintendents that are trying to do the right thing and are being pushed in the wrong direction.”

Cardona’s comments after Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold funding for schools that require masks for students, vowing to defend the rights of parents to decide on masking for their own kids.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden publicly accused Texas and Florida of blocking progress against the virus. “What are we doing?” Biden said Tuesday. He called on officials who didn’t want to “help” on Covid to “get out of the way.”

“If some governors aren’t going to do the right thing,” Biden said, they should allow businesses and universities to set their own rules. Asked about DeSantis and Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Biden said, “Their decisions are not good for their constituents.”

Future of student debt repayments

Cardona also said during Thursday’s briefing that student loan borrowers who have had their payments and interest suspended since last year will hear about whether they’ll have to begin repaying their debt “very soon.”

“I don’t have anything today, but as I said, this is a priority for us. The borrowers are in need of information and they’re also in need of relief,” he added.

The student loan forbearance, instituted by the federal government as a form of financial relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, is set to end on September 30. The Biden administration has not made clear whether it intends to extend the forbearance.

Earlier Thursday, the Biden administration also announced extra steps to support back-to-school efforts.

To bolster Covid-19 vaccinations among young people, the White House is launching a a back-to-school “week of action” with partner organizations to get more young people vaccinated, as well as a number of other initiative, including encouraging incorporating Covid-19 vaccinations into sports physicals in the summer and fall.

The National Parent Teacher Association will be encouraging the deployment of pediatricians to “Back to School Nights” across the country with Covid-19 vaccine information. The administration launched additional resources to get help schools host pop-up vaccine clinics, after the President encouraged each school to host one clinic in the coming weeks.

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