“We must make up for lost time” in schools

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Thursday that schools across the country must act urgently to help millions of students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. “We have to make up for lost time,” he said.

Striving to keep schools open is no longer enough, Cardona said in a speech outlining his priorities. He urged schools to use billions of dollars in federal aid to expand mental health tutoring and counseling, and to close the achievement gaps that have widened during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to make schools stronger than they were before, he said, seeing a “chance for an education reset”.

“Although our country is in the midst of a crisis, I know our children can’t wait any longer,” Cardona said from department headquarters. “They’ve suffered enough, and this is our moment.”

He took a harder edge on the issue of school closures, which are seen as a political liability for Democrats given growing frustration among parents. Most schools remained open during the spread of the omicron variant, but scattered closures disrupted some communities.

“Reopening schools safely is the foundation, but it’s not enough,” Cardona said. “We have to make up for lost time”

He said schools should now focus fully on helping students recover, especially those from groups who faced educational inequity even before the pandemic.

To start, he urged all schools to provide at least 30 minutes of tutoring three days a week to each student who has fallen behind. He said schools should aim to double the number of counselors, social workers and mental health workers in their buildings – a target previously set by President Joe Biden.

The education secretary said schools should be able to meet those targets using federal dollars from Biden’s U.S. bailout, which sent $130 billion to schools across the country last year.

Most schools have barely dipped into this pool, however, and many are still deciding how to use it ahead of a late 2024 spending deadline. Biden expressed frustration last week at how slowly the money is being spent . “Use it” was his message for states and schools.

Cardona said the money should be spent now on more advisers and other staff.

He asked schools to look beyond the pandemic even as some continue to face disruption from COVID-19. The omicron variant has resulted in waves of teacher absences in some areas, leaving some with too few staff to stay open. Teachers’ unions warn the problem will only get worse as burnt-out educators resign or retire.

Cardona, himself a former teacher, said teachers should be paid more and treated with “the respect and dignity they deserve”. The White House has offered federal funds to support pay increases, but Cardona said it’s up to states and districts to give teachers a living wage.

“It’s up to us to make sure the jobs in education are the ones that educators don’t want to leave, he said.

Turning to Congress, Cardona pushed for the passage of several key provisions of Biden’s education plan, including increased Title I funding for low-income schools, more money for the special education and universal preschool education. All three have been embroiled in a political stalemate in Washington.

In higher education, Cardona’s priorities focus on student debt. So far, the Biden administration has written off $15 billion in debt for borrowers in some programs, and it recently eased rules for the ailing public service loan forgiveness program.

In December, Biden also extended a pause on student loan repayments until May 1, a move intended to help millions of borrowers defer loan repayments during the pandemic. Cardona said the current student debt burden is “unacceptable” and that “no one should be forced to make a payment they can’t afford.”

He did not say whether the administration will pursue broader debt cancellation. Biden has faced mounting pressure from progressive Democrats to write off huge swathes of student debt. More than 80 lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday calling for the cancellation of $50,000 in student debt for each borrower.

Nearly a year ago, the White House said it would study the legality of such a move, and Biden had previously said he would support writing off up to $10,000 per borrower through legislation. The administration has yet to issue a public decision on the matter.

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