Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday he wants to get as many schools open this spring as possible, but as COVID-19 vaccination efforts keep growing and known mitigation strategies are used, he expects 100% of the nation's schools will be open for in-person learning this coming fall.
"I think if we continue with mitigation strategies that we know work, and we utilize the American Rescue Plan funding to put in those safeguards that are needed to provide safe environments for our students, we can really continue to make the progress that we're making to get students [back in school] in the spring," Cardona said on NBC's "Today."
According to a new survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just over 75% of the nation's public schools now are open either for full-time or part-time in-person classes. Cardona pointed out that in many cases, students have been waiting to get back in school for more than a year, since closures shuttered classes when the pandemic started last spring.
"We know schools are safe communities for our students, and places where students grow not only academically, but they're really missing that social, emotional connection with other students and their teachers," he said Wednesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed its guidelines on how far children in school should be kept from each other to stay safe. When the guidelines initially said they must stay 6 feet apart to stay safe, the new guidelines say 3 feet is sufficient.
In addition, the number of vaccinations going being administered is climbing, with 2.5 million Americans getting their shots daily. However, several states again are reporting a rise in new COVID-19 cases, even while President Joe Biden has set a goal of May for states to provide vaccines to anyone who wants one.
Cardona, though, said he doesn't think teachers should be required to have their shots before they can return to the classrooms.
"I think what we're seeing is the president taking a stand on ensuring that our educators are vaccinated so that we can safely reopen schools and address some of the concerns and fears that educators have expressed," he said. "It's really an effort to, in addition to the mitigation strategies, provide the safest learning environment for our students and for our staff."
Cardona also suggested that after-school programs, along with "creative" learning opportunities this summer could help children who may have fallen behind during a year of remote learning, but warned that it could take "several years" to reconnect the nation's children with some of the learning losses that have happened.
Meanwhile, the nation's second-largest teachers' union is arguing the science still is not available to reopen the nation's classrooms for in-person attendance or to back up the convention that three feet is enough space to put between students.
In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Cardona on Tuesday, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, argued thae while she and the other members "trust the CDC" for accurate information, they have concerns about the new distancing guidelines, reports CBS News, which obtained a copy of her letter.
"We are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time," Weingarten wrote. "Our concern is that the cited studies do not identify the baseline mitigation strategies needed to support 3 feet of physical distancing."
She also questioned the social distancing studies used by the CDC in its guidelines, pointing out that they weren't conducted "in our nation's highest-density and least-resourced schools, which have poor ventilation, crowding and other structural challenges."
The letter, for background, cited a review by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which has criticized "free-market fundamentalism" and other factors for its "corporate influence in politics" and questioned whether 3 feet of distance is enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
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