House leader: COVID must be priority for new education secretary

Miguel Cardona will likely face questioning on reopening schools at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing

The chairman of the U.S. Committee on Education and Labor said Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of education, can likely expect questions during his confirmation hearing this week on reopening schools amid the pandemic.

In an Education Writers Assocation call with reporters Tuesday, Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott said the first priority facing Cardona will be COVID-19. “And if you ask me about the second and third priorities, it would be COVID-19 and COVID-19,” said Scott.

Cardona, the Connecticut education commissioner, will face the Senate’s education committee Wednesday. As education secretary, Cardona would need to shift the debate from whether to open schools or not to whether it is safe to open them, said Scott. Calling in-person learning better for kids, Scott said, “We should obviously open the schools if it can be done. We should be asking what we should do to open safely.”

That’s been a concern in the few metro districts yet to fully reopen all their schools for face-to-face learning, including Atlanta Public Schools, the DeKalb County School System and City Schools of Decatur.

Decatur reopened for pre-k through fifth grade students two weeks ago. Atlanta brought back its youngest students last week in a phase-in plan. DeKalb delayed a planned Jan. 19 reopening of classrooms for students in five grade levels until later this month. But DeKalb brings back teachers Wednesday, a decision that provoked two protests in the last three days by staff and parents who believe infection rates are too high to reopen buildings.

Proponents of in-person classes cite a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report saying the preponderance of evidence suggests schools can reopen if basic safety efforts, including mask wearing and social distancing, are in place.

Along with offering leadership on how to reopen, Cardona must also address how districts can help students who lost ground in the pandemic, said Scott. While the disruption of schooling has spurred requests, including by the state of Georgia, to suspend the annual high-stakes testing mandated under federal law, Scott disagreed with canceling exams.

Combined ShapeCaption
Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, visits a Virginia elementary school in 2009 with Arne Duncan, secretary of education under President Obama.

Credit: Joshua Hoover

Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, visits a Virginia elementary school in 2009 with Arne Duncan, secretary of education under President Obama.

Credit: Joshua Hoover

Combined ShapeCaption
Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, visits a Virginia elementary school in 2009 with Arne Duncan, secretary of education under President Obama.

Credit: Joshua Hoover

Credit: Joshua Hoover

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos granted waivers for testing last spring after the pandemic forced school closures nationwide, including in Georgia. However, DeVos rejected a waiver submitted for this year’s testing by Superintendent Richard Woods and supported by Gov. Brian Kemp. In a joint statement, the two GOP leaders said, “Given the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic and the resulting state budget reductions, it would be counterproductive to continue with high stakes testing for the 2020-2021 school year.”

In a letter to state school chiefs in September, DeVos wrote, “Make no mistake. If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment. Opponents of reform, like labor unions, have already begun to call for the permanent elimination of testing. If they succeed in eliminating assessments, transparency and accountability will soon follow.”

One of the architects of the Every Student Succeeds Act signed into law by President Obama in 2015, Scott said the tests were essential to benchmark where students are academically in the wake of COVID-19. “I think it is a bad idea to go into the next few months without knowing who is behind or how far behind,” he said. “If you don’t have any assessments, how do you know who needs help during the summer?”

Scott said he didn’t endorse leveraging test scores for accountability to evaluate whether schools are succeeding. “I don’t know why you would want to label schools,” he said. “Every school will have at least one subgroup lagging behind and that makes it a failing school. That is not particularly constructive.”