WASHINGTON—The president’s pick to lead the U.S. Education Department said Wednesday that he wants teachers at the front of the line for vaccinations as local leaders debate reopening schools amid the pandemic.
Miguel Cardona, a veteran educator from Connecticut, in his Senate confirmation hearing also faced questions from several Republicans about transgender students’ participation in school athletics. Some states recently have advanced bills barring transgender women from playing on teams that align with their gender identity, including Montana.
Nonetheless, it appeared Cardona may get bipartisan backing from the Senate. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the incoming ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was satisfied with Biden’s selection of Cardona to lead the Education Department and was impressed with his career as an educator in Connecticut.
“The fact that you’ve been asked to lead the Department of Education at a very challenging time is daunting for anybody,” Burr said.
On reopening schools, Cardona told the committee that transparency and partnering with public health officials would be vital.
“This year has piled on crisis after crisis,” said Cardona, who if confirmed would be the third Latino to run the $68 billion agency.
He noted that educators and students are struggling with mental health issues and stress from the pandemic. Cardona said that when reopening schools, there need to be mental health services provided for both students and educators.
“Our nation’s education challenges didn’t start with the pandemic,” he said.
Cardona added that another troubling trend he’s noticed due to the pandemic is the decline in enrollment of students in higher education, particularly in community college. Inside Higher Education recently reported there was a 2.5 percent drop in college enrollment last fall, twice the rate of the previous year’s decline, and community colleges in particular took a hit.
He said the view of secondary education needs to expand from universities to other paths such as community college, and that Career Technical Education pathways should be utilized, not stigmatized.
Cardona has worked as an elementary school teacher and a principal, fitting in with President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate an Education secretary with classroom experience, a sharp contrast with former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He’s also the first in his family to attend college.
Cardona said another challenge that educators are facing amid the pandemic is the lack of broadband connectivity among some students, as well as assessing how much learning loss has affected students.
He said that it’s possible that schools might have to continue during the summer to close those learning gaps of the past year.
Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, questioned how Cardona would address the barriers that students with disabilities face when pursuing post-secondary education. He added that some students with disabilities don’t get enough support from their institutions and that can lead to them dropping out.
Cardona said it’s important to look at institutions that are successful at supporting students with disabilities and implementing those best practices elsewhere and also keeping data on how those students are faring in college.
The goal of higher education is one that needs to be expanded in this country, along with a cultural shift in how students with disabilities are viewed, he said.
“Not only looking at them as students with disabilities but students with assets, students with great abilities who have to learn a certain way or require accommodations,” Cardona said.
Several Republicans also expressed their dismay at allowing transgender students to participate in sports.
Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas asked Cardona if he would prevent transgender girls from competing on girls sports teams.
Cardona cited the Supreme Court’s ruling that discrimination based on gender is illegal and said that it was important to support all students.
“We respect the rights and beliefs of all of our students,” he said.
The Senate HELP Committee chair, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, did not schedule a committee vote for Cardona but said she hopes to advance his nomination to the floor as soon as possible.