CHICAGO – Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stood outside Walter R. Sundley Jr. High School in the Illinois village of Palatine on Tuesday morning and watched as a dozen student band members played the national anthem.
“You guys want to see inside the bus,” he asked the students when they finished. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
Students excitedly piled one by one with their instruments into a big purple bus emblazoned with the words “Return to School.” The tuba barely fit through the door, prompting laughter from the throngs of educators, parents and school leaders who watched the impromptu spectacle.
The trip to the Chicago suburb marked the first stop on the second day of the secretary’s back-to-school bus tour, which is winding through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan to highlight some bright starts to an academic year once again overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
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Cardona’s task is a delicate one: to celebrate the incredible feat of the country’s public school system whirring back to life against the backdrop of the highly contagious delta variant. And for the most part, it’s doing just that. Out of roughly 98,000 schools, only 2,000 have temporarily closed or pivoted back to virtual or hybrid learning due to outbreaks.
“These ups and downs have felt especially steep these days,” Cardona told the crowd. “Over the past year and a half, America experienced challenges like never before. Yet I’ve seen the resilience and determination of communities all across the country to wrap students in love and provide them with the support they need to thrive.”
“Now we are here at the beginning of a new school year,” he said. “It’s a time of possibility, a time of opportunity and a time of hope. Few things are more hopeful than the smiles on the faces I see in front of me.”
But breaking through the front-facing celebratory fanfare surrounding the week-long trip is a serious, if not somber, message about the work ahead – about recovering months of learning loss, about helping children through the trauma they experienced over the last 18 months and about overcoming partisan politics and disinformation campaigns to deploy as many risk-mitigation measures as possible and get shots into the arms of more children and their families.
The goal, with added concern for those in large urban school districts where community transmission is high or in places with low vaccination rates and mask-optional policies is to avoid another school year interrupted. And to underscore the gravity of the task ahead, Cardona was flanked at various times throughout the day by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“There are pockets in our country, for political reasons or reasons I cannot understand, that are choosing not to follow what we know works,” Cardona tells U.S. News in an exclusive interview. “We have a year’s worth of experience under our belt, we have better testing capabilities, we have vaccinations available.”
“A year ago we were all hoping for a vaccine,” he says. “Other countries wish they were in the position we are in.”
The secretary insists the vast majority of schools are doing the right thing and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s long-standing recommendations for how to reopen school safely.
But some data tells a different story: One analysis of 100 of the largest school districts in the country shows that masks are still optional in 20 of them. In addition, just 15 of those 100 districts require vaccinations for school staff – nine of which require staff members to either get vaccinated or participate in weekly testing.
As it stands, 16 states and the District of Columbia enforce mask mandates, less than the number doing so last year at this time.
The Biden administration is flexing its muscles where it can.
Last month, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into five states – Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah – examining whether their bans on mask mandates in schools discriminate against students with disabilities.
The probes mark the most aggressive action by the Education Department in its efforts to support local school leaders trying to return students to school safely.
“I wanted to be very clear that we are going to protect students,” Cardona tells U.S. News. “We are going to stand on the side of students, on the side of educators who are protecting students.”
“We are going to investigate and we will see where that goes,” Cardona says. “But the message is out there that we will not allow for states to punish leaders who are trying to protect children.”
Indeed, department officials are also closely watching Arizona, Arkansas and Florida – other Republican-controlled states that have executive orders or state laws prohibiting school districts from mandating masks.
“The fact that Florida has three times the number of children in their hospitals on average than other places because, in my opinion, the lack of focus on mitigation strategies that work, I think we have to be honest with our families, too, and share with them that this is preventable and the vaccine is the best tool we have.”
As for the throngs of parents and community members storming school board meetings to protest and threaten board members in an effort to stop them from requiring the very COVID-19 safety protocols research shows helps prevent the spread of the virus, Cardona says he hopes the back-to-school bus tour helps shift the narrative.
“What I’m trying to do through this tour is visit schools where they are doing the right things, where students are playing band, where students have after-school activities and where they’re not talking about quarantines and closing schools,” the secretary says.
“They’re not talking about that because they are following the mitigation strategies,” he says. “So through this tour, we are trying to lift up best practices to drown out some of the negative loud voices in those same communities where they have to shut schools down.”
Going forward, Cardona says Education Department officials are working around the clock to assemble an internal database of real-time COVID-19 infections in school districts to supplement the safety policies they have in place. At this point, he says the data reporting is voluntary, but they plan to expand it in the coming months.
“We are getting real-time data by calling and picking up the phone and working with our partners at the district and state level to find out what the cases are so that we can provide on-the-spot technical assistance,” he says.
Over the course of the remainder of the back-to-school bus tour, Cardona will continue to thread the thinnest of needles – touring schools, talking with children and educators and cheering on the communities succeeding in the face of the ongoing pandemic, while privately worrying about the millions of children in communities that still have a lot of ground to make.
“The pandemic took away many things,” he says. “It took away theater performances, it took away band practices, basketball and soccer games. Schools provide so much more to students than a place to learn. For many students, schools are the only places they can get access to school counselors, nurses and other mental health professionals. That’s one big reason why the return to in-person learning is so critical.”
“They’ve suffered enough,” he says. “They need to be in the classrooms.”