Education secretary touts spending of federal relief aid at DeKalb school

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, second from right, and U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff, right, participate in a discussion with DeKalb County School District parents and members of the DeKalb County Board of Education during a visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, second from right, and U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff, right, participate in a discussion with DeKalb County School District parents and members of the DeKalb County Board of Education during a visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Air filters to help fight COVID also reflect focus on upgrading systems in older schools

Former school principal Miguel Cardona has visited classrooms across the country in his new role as U.S. education secretary, but he saw something different during a visit to the DeKalb County School District on Friday.

“I saw the Merv 13 filters I’ve been hearing about for a year,” he said, after inspecting the boiler room and other parts of the Kelley Lake Elementary School air-handling system. “Finally saw one.”

The filters (the acronym stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) have been widely recommended as part of a strategy to scrub air of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Cardona chose the decades-old school to showcase the way educators are using billions in federal pandemic relief. The improved air-handling system instills confidence in parents who are wary about returning their kids to classrooms, he said.

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DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris greets parents during a tour and visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris greets parents during a tour and visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris greets parents during a tour and visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Reopening schools this fall has been a top priority of President Joe Biden. The one-time federal investment can have a long-term impact, Cardona said, producing “equity” between rich and poor areas.

Some schools are “muggy,” Cardona said in a brief telephone call with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after leaving Kelley Lake. That can make for inattentive students while aggravating their health problems, such as asthma, he said. Kelley Lake’s decision to spend some of DeKalb’s $313 million from the latest round of federal relief funding on a more forceful and better-filtered air system should be a model for the nation, he said.

“I think the air quality in this school probably hasn’t been this good in years,” he said. “It, unfortunately, took a pandemic for there to be funding and the priority to upgrade their system.”

The visit was part of Cardona’s effort to promote Biden’s plan to invest another $100 billion in schools as part of his “Build Back Better” agenda.

Biden has met resistance from Republicans opposed to his plans for spending trillions more on roads, bridges and schools, with an expansion of services such as child care and Medicare.

Cardona was joined by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who succeeded John Lewis after his death last year. Both are Democrats, with Williams chairing the state Democratic Party.

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U.S. Congresswoman Nikema Williams, left, chats with U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff following tour and visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

U.S. Congresswoman Nikema Williams, left, chats with U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff following tour and visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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U.S. Congresswoman Nikema Williams, left, chats with U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff following tour and visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Cardona mentioned “equity” several times during his visit, and in the telephone interview afterward, he explained that older schools, primarily in urban and rural areas, tend to have the most outdated air handling systems and, consequently, the worst air.

“It’s a long-term issue. It’s also an equity issue. In many of our less-resourced communities, we see older buildings that are less maintained,” he said. “So that’s something that we need to bring attention to and I think the Build Back Better agenda does that.”

Christopher Mostiller was among a handful of parents picked to meet with Cardona in the Kelley Lake school library. He said there that he had decided to let his daughter attend kindergarten in person this fall because he was confident in the school’s safety.

A main factor for him was trust that comes from familiarity and communication. His son, a rising middle schooler, had attended there, and more recently the school has answered his questions whenever he called.

Asked in a telephone interview later about the air handling system, Mostiller said he had never noticed muggy air there and his son had never complained about it. He did register a slight difference in the air conditioner Friday though.

“It sounds like the air is blowing a little more,” he said.