Students need to go back to their classrooms this fall as that is where they learn best, but schools should also follow the Centers for Disease Control's guidelines recommending universal indoor masking, according to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
"Schools are more than just places where students learn how to read and write — they're communities," Cardona told NPR. "They're like second families to our students."
The U.S. Education Department on Monday is releasing a roadmap for reopening schools, which will also recommend students to outline ways to "accelerate academic achievement" and to invest in both social and emotional support for returning students.
However, it may be difficult for some districts to follow masking guidelines in states like Texas, South Carolina, and Iowa, where laws ban mask mandates in schools.
"I know that there are some folks making decisions that are less based on science and more on their ideology," Cardona said. "Our educators, their job is to make sure our students are OK. We have to make sure that we're following mitigation strategies and creating safe learning environments for students."
He also called it "unfortunate" that there will be school leaders who "are going to be running up against challenges from elected officials."
Cardona said his department is speaking with governors and elected officials about reopening schools, but noted that COVID-19 is spreading most in places where officials are most resistant. The Delta variant of COVID is creating concern nationwide, said Cardona, commenting after the CDC last week published data showing that with the virus' shift, people who have had their vaccines are as likely as people who have not to spread the virus.
"We know that mask-wearing and mitigation strategies allow (schools) to reopen safely," Cardona told NPR, adding that if the new increased spread of the virus keeps schools from reopening this fall, "that's a failure of adults."
Meanwhile, the Education Department's roadmap for reopening recommends school leaders both encourage vaccinations for teachers, staff, and eligible students, and provide access to the shots.
According to the CDC, just 28% of children ages 12-15 were fully vaccinated as of last week, and the shots are not approved for children younger than 12.
Even without vaccines, Cardona said students need to return to their schools, where they can "access the social and emotional support and mental health support professionals that are available in the school," as well as take part in the school meals programs.
Cardona admitted that he is concerned that "complacency" could hold schools back.
"Before the pandemic, we had wide opportunity gaps in our country," he said.
"We had the cost of college preventing people from thinking about college because they didn't want to be buried in debt. We must do better."
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