COVID-19 vaccinations will be a "big part" of getting the nation's children back in school full time, but the social and emotional well-being of students who have mostly been learning in front of a screen over the past year and who have experienced losses will be a major concern as well, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Friday
"We know that over 600,000 students ages 12 to 15 already got their vaccines, so the appetite is there," Cardona said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Many of our students have experienced trauma in terms of loss of life with people that they know or loss of employment. Many things have changed, and we have to be prepared to meet them where they are."
He said he fully expects the nation's students will all be back in their schools five days a week by this fall, and funds from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion initiative passed just after President Joe Biden took office, will come into play for that.
"[The funds] will be used to get additional staff, social and emotional staff, social workers, school counselors," said Cardona.
But at the same time, families must also be engaged.
"That means we're knocking on doors, connecting families and activities where they feel welcome, ensuring that we're utilizing these summer months to reengage our students, especially our high schoolers in ways that can get them back on track for graduation and thinking about themselves as future college students," he said.
However the pandemic has also left some students who are not as engaged in their schooling, and that there are many who may even drop out, and only being in school part-time and learning remotely otherwise is contributing to that disengagement, said Cardona.
"The American Rescue Plan provides $130 billion for states to make sure that they're prioritizing strategies on those who were impacted most by the pandemic," he said. "That includes students who are now disengaged because of circumstances. We also have millions of homeless youth. As we said earlier, home visitation, connection with parents in ways we haven't done it again...I feel confident we're going to get back into programming that was better than it was in March of 2020."
Meanwhile, he said he'll leave medical questions up to Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and others on their team when it comes to the question of whether children should be required to have a COVID-19 vaccine, like is required for other diseases, to return to school.
"What I do know is when students do take advantage of the vaccine, schools are safer and communities are safer," Cardona said. "Our students deserve an opportunity to get back to how things were before the pandemic in terms of socialization and the vaccines are really going to help us get there."
But even without the vaccine, schools were able to successfully reopen from the beginning of the year through the use of mitigation strategies such as masking and social distancing that the CDC recommended, said Cardona.
"For those parents who are hesitant, you can still send your children to school," he said. "We just have to make sure we're continuing to follow those mitigation strategies that have proven to work. Not only do I recommend the vaccination for children, I strongly encourage that it's approved."
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