In the two months since his confirmation as U.S. education secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona has visited nearly 10 schools across the country in efforts to realize the Biden administration’s vision of every American student safely entering classrooms both this spring and in the new school year next fall.
The most recent leg of Cardona’s tour brought him to Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in the heart of Southwest where he toured the campus and learned how administrators have collaborated with teachers and community members to facilitate the reopening process.
The experience reaffirms the significance of the American Rescue Plan through which schools will receive funds to safely reopen while also enabling schools to offer youth additional means of support.
“Even during our unprecedented challenges, students and teachers wanted to be back in the classrooms. They wanted to do it safely,” Cardona said April 30 during his address in the gymnasium of Amidon-Bowen Elementary School.
“With the American Rescue Plan, cities have the help they need. This money is available for investments. When we come back, we need to be prepared to meet students where they are and provide them the support they need. We need to make sure this money is going to the students who have been hit the hardest,” he said.
Focus Remains Maintaining Healthy Environments
At the beginning of the year, President Joe Biden (D) announced the American Rescue Plan as an emergency legislative package intended to fund vaccinations, safely reopen schools, provide economic relief to families affected by the pandemic and advance racial equity.
The $1,400 stimulus checks sent to recently sent to taxpayers count among the provisions of this plan.
In total, the U.S. Department of Education has doled out more than $120 million to usher K-12 teachers and students back into the classroom in a manner that reflects the wishes of school administrators, parents and community members.
By the end of February, more than 80 percent of elementary and middle schools in the U.S. offered some form of in-person learning. Throughout March and April, at least 20 large school districts fully reopened schools.
Those numbers have steadily increased since the Biden administration prioritized teacher vaccinations and invested in surveillance testing during which a percentage of the school population receives tests to determine the effectiveness of social distancing and other COVID-related protocols.
All the while, education officials continue to follow the lead of their local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. The most recent CDC recommendations encourage students to maintain a distance of three feet in school settings. They also tout adequate ventilation as an important factor in maintaining a clean environment.
Prevention strategies, which the CDC has heralded as the pathway to a safe reopening, should center on the appropriate use of masks and personal protective equipment along with the vaccination of teachers and administrators.
Students, Teachers Hope to Overcome Anxiety and Fears
Safety continues to be a concern among teachers and parents. As of April 29, more than 200 DCPS personnel have contracted COVID-19 while working in person; 140 students have tested positive for the virus. Currently, nearly 200 people remain in quarantine, according to data collected by the D.C. Department of Health.
Earlier this year, public and public charter schools returned to in-person learning amid contentious discussions about whether the move represented a safe decision. In the days leading up to the teachers’ Term 3 campus return, the Washington Teachers’ Union and the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) central office found themselves locked in debates over whether DCPS had followed a Memorandum of Agreement which laid out the required elements for a safe reopening.
Even so, many students and parents, frustrated by declines in learning and the absence of human interaction that virtual spaces could not provide, remained eager for in-class instruction to return.
When Amidon-Bowen reopened in February, 98 students among a total population of more than 300 received a Term 3 in-person schedule, according to DCPS data. In addition, school leaders coordinated meetings with parents and community members to hear what each group considered important in realizing this milestone.
“Safety was paramount but so was the piece about continuing relationships with students,” said Principal TaMikka Sykes. “All of our teachers are able to accommodate in-person and virtual learning and that was a gift. Further, it’s important that we put the financial support we’ve received behind the things we want to see [like] maintaining small group instruction, social-emotional learning and all the things needed at a community school.”