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Education Secretary Cardona calls for schools to address inequities, engage parents

By Clyde Hughes & Grace Deng, Medill News Service
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Education Secretary Cardona calls for schools to address inequities, engage parents
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks on Thursday about priorities for the Department of Education, including how to support students, families and educators, recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and make broader investments into America's education system, at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Thursday that the department aims to concentrate on helping students who fell behind during distance learning last year and ensure teachers are paid enough so that they want to stay in their profession.

Cardona made the comments at the Department of Education while laying out his top priorities for the year, as the nation's schools continue to adapt to changes forced by the coronavirus pandemic, including lockdowns and virtual learning.

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Cardona said the country is at a critical point in education, and he sees the crossroads as an opportunity to create a system that's more nimble to handle changes, more versatile to accommodate every type of student and allows teachers and parents to feel valued.

"We must level up our entire system of education," Cardona said.

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"This is our moment not only to keep schools open, but also to address the inequities that have existed in our school systems for far too long. It is our moment to finally make education the great equalizer, the force that could make every student thrive."

Cardona said President Joe Biden's administration will also move aggressively on student loan programs and reforms for for-profit schools that saddle students with huge debt. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
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He added: "To my colleagues in the field, I know you're tired. I know you're stretched. You probably feel how I felt when I was trying to reopen schools during the first part of the pandemic -- truly felt impossible. I see you and I understand what you're going through. It will get better."

Cardona has prioritized keeping schools in person amid case surges due to the Omicron variant. The secretary wrote in August that his agency would use "every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators."

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"Just over one year into President Biden's term, we know what to do," Cardona said. "But I recognize the daily challenges our students, our parents and educators still face. We have better tools to keep schools safe and thriving amidst a pandemic.

"For the past two years, educators, school personnel, school and district leaders have worked courageously to ensure to make sure that we went from 46% of our schools open in-person one year ago, to over 96% of our schools open in-person today."

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Cardona called for more "meaningful and authentic" parent engagement with schools. He said that as a former school principal, he always found getting parents to buy in was critical to overall growth.

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"Especially now during the pandemic, engaging parents' voices, the recovering and addressing disparities is not only important, it's necessary," Cardona said. "All parents' voices must be heard."

Cardona also linked student success with providing schools with additional funds to pay teachers, saying that children will benefit when educators receive the support they need.

"When we invest in our teachers, we invest in our students," he said.

"Let's not just talk about honoring educators, let's make sure they are treated with the respect and the dignity they deserve," Cardona said.

"This means a livable wage, it means ongoing professional learning and development, supportive working conditions and a work environment where their voices are welcome as critical partners in our work to improve education."

The secretary recommended using American Rescue Plan funds for mental health support and tutoring.

Suicidal behavior and mental health challenges have increased significantly among students during the pandemic, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General. A surge of new data shows students, particularly students of color, have lost months of learning due to the pandemic.

"Our schools must offer increased access to mental health support for students, wraparound programs meaningful and authentic, parent and family engagement and interventions for those students who felt the impact of the pandemic much more bluntly than others," Cardona said.

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He set goals for districts to meet, such as making sure students have access to at least one mental health professional, every high school has at least one career counselor and every high school student participates in at least extracurricular activity at their school.

Cardona also said President Joe Biden's administration will also move aggressively on student loan programs and reforms for for-profit schools that saddle students with huge debt but little prospects for jobs after graduating.

He also touted the Biden administration's proposed cancellation of $15 billion in student loan debt through overhauls of current federal loan programs. Biden promised to erase $10,000 of student loans per person, but Congress dropped the student loan provision from Build Back Better, the president's signature legislative policy measure.

"I'm really proud that as of last week our changes have made 70,000 doctors, nurses, veterans, service members, teachers, and others in public service fields eligible for $5 billion in loan relief," Cardona said, referring to the department's overhaul of a program focused on forgiveness for public servants.

According to data from the Federal Student Aid office, 43.4 million Americans hold $1.6 trillion of federal student loans. The Biden administration has extended the pause on student loan repayments until May 1.

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"We're committed to supporting every student loan borrower when they transition back into repayment," Cardona said. "No one should be forced to make a payment they cannot afford."

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