U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona praised the efforts of educators and focused on the importance of masks to keep schools open as he visited classrooms in northern Indiana Wednesday. The stops in Elkhart and South Bend were part of a multi-state bus tour across the Midwest, highlighting the return to in-person school.
Cardona said there were few signs of the pandemic in the Hoosier classrooms he visited – other than kids wearing masks.
"Relationships were established, teachers were smiling, engaging with students, and you know it just felt – it felt normal," he said.
The approach to get kids back in classrooms has been mixed in the state and across the country. Tensions have boiled over in some communities about schools' health and safety policies as students returned to in-person instruction.
But Cardona said COVID-19 precautions are aimed at achieving a goal everyone can agree on: keeping students in-person, and avoiding pandemic-related disruptions to their learning.
"We do keep our attention focused on the spread of COVID and making sure that we can prevent spread in our schools by implementing those strategies, so I want parents to feel comfortable that their schools are doing everything in their power to protect students and staff," he said.
He said until younger students are able to get vaccinated, masks are a key tool to keep students and staff safe.
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But even as schools continue grappling with the unpredictability of the pandemic and political pressure surrounding mitigation efforts, they're also trying to make up for lost time. Cardona said federal COVID-19 relief funding plays a central role in providing wrap-around programs to support students' academic progress.
"There are additional resources for additional tutors, afterschool programs, summer programming, so I'm confident, especially with the dedication I've seen today of these educators, that these students are in good hands and they're going to be great," he said.
He said it's especially critical for schools to engage families as they support English Learners and students with disabilities, who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
The bus tour will continue Thursday with stops across Michigan.