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The Education Secretary Plays Hardball (And A Cowbell) To Push For Safe Schools

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accompanies North High School's marching band on the cowbell during a Monday pep rally in Eau Claire, Wis.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accompanies North High School's marching band on the cowbell during a Monday pep rally in Eau Claire, Wis.

Updated September 24, 2021 at 6:58 AM ET

Miguel Cardona walks the halls of Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wis., with a gray mask, a crisp blue suit and the easy familiarity of a teacher or principal, though he is neither.

He pops into Ms. Gallaher's first-grade classroom to welcome the masked children back to school and ask about their favorite playground equipment ("swings!" by a landslide), then checks in with Mr. P's fourth-graders long enough to talk Pokémon, drop a few bad dad jokes (Cardona has two teens at home in Connecticut) and hand out chocolate coins.

"If you look really closely, it says, 'Eat me before recess today,' " Cardona jokes about the coins' gold foil wrapping. The kids love it, both the chocolate and this strange grown-up championing dessert at all hours.

Though Cardona is a former fourth-grade teacher and principal, not to mention the former commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut, he's visiting Locust Lane in a very different capacity: as the nation's top education official, the U.S. secretary of education.

Eau Claire was the first stop of a "Return-to-School Road Trip" that had Cardona barnstorming across five Midwestern states this week in a lush, purple bus, talking up the Biden administration's efforts to help children return safely to desks and hopscotch grids that many haven't touched in more than a year.

Students and staff recite the Pledge of Allegiance before Monday's pep rally at Locust Lane Elementary School.
/ Tim Gruber for NPR
Students and staff recite the Pledge of Allegiance before Monday's pep rally at Locust Lane Elementary School.

After the classroom visits comes an outdoor pep rally, where Cardona promises to share the kids' requests of more time for recess and art with President Biden. When he's finished, he grabs a cowbell and thwacks along with the North High School marching band playing Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train."

"The best sign of recovery as a country is to listen to school bands," Cardona tells the crowd.

The purpose of all this choreographed fun is to reassure anxious students, families and educators that classrooms are once again safe — and to celebrate schools that have embraced the secretary's message of universal masking and vaccines for everyone who is eligible. Because beneath this ebullient surface is a strong undertow, fueled by the delta variant.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 226,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in the week ending Sept. 16 — the third highest number of child cases in a week since the pandemic began. And a regional breakdown of child COVID-19 cases shows the return to school in August coincided with an explosion of new cases in southern states where many schools have been either unable or unwilling to require student masking or staff vaccination. The Midwest, Northeast and West all saw far smaller increases in child cases.

Locust Lane students lobbied the secretary for more recess, art and gym time.
/ Tim Gruber for NPR
Locust Lane students lobbied the secretary for more recess, art and gym time.

The secretary has paired optimism with political pugilism

"The reality is, we still have folks that are making decisions that are not protecting children," Cardona says later that afternoon. He's sitting at a quiet table on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, just a few feet from the untroubled waters of Lake Mendota.

Cardona worked as a teacher, principal and state education commissioner before becoming the education secretary.
/ Tim Gruber for NPR
Cardona worked as a teacher, principal and state education commissioner before becoming the education secretary.

Away from the crowds of children, a very different education secretary emerges, one who is quite serious and clearly frustrated.

"Sadly, you can look at the data in those places that are more relaxed about [safety]. Their emergency rooms are filled up. Their pediatric ICUs are filled up, which is different than in other places like [Locust Lane Elementary]," Cardona says. "Kids are happy. We're not talking about interrupted learning. We can joke around about what's for lunch."

It's worth noting that even at some schools that do require masks, delta has found a way in, forcing students and staff into quarantine and pushing some districts to re-think their online options. At Locust Lane, a few dozen students are currently quarantining, despite the district's mask mandate, which school officials say has been unpopular with some families. Still, Superintendent Mike Johnson says their mask policy has also helped limit infections to a few dozen confirmed cases across the district of about 11,000 students.

Cardona has been education secretary for just over six months, and the pandemic has thus far dominated his tenure. He has tried to balance optimism — about getting kids back into schools safely — with the occasional burst of political pugilism. Universal masking and efforts to vaccinate students and staff, which Cardona sees as integral to that safe return to school, have roiled many districts, and Biden's education secretary has repeatedly thrown punches in the name of public health.

Cardona, center, and U.S Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten, right, talk with staff at Locust Lane Elementary.
/ Tim Gruber for NPR
Cardona, center, and U.S Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten, right, talk with staff at Locust Lane Elementary.

When several states banned schools from requiring that students wear masks, the secretary announced his department would investigate them for potentially violating the civil rights of students with disabilities. When Florida withheld the salaries of some school officials who defied the state's mask mandate ban, Cardona awarded the district a grant to cover the costs.

But local officials have far more power over schools than the education secretary, and this week's bus tour — to Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan — gives Cardona a chance to take his evangelism for masking and vaccination on the road. For politicians and parents who say those choices are deeply personal, and should not be forced on anyone, the secretary has three words: "Schools are communities."

Cardona pauses, and repeats.

"Schools are communities. What an important lesson we need to teach our kids: My actions affect someone else. And unfortunately, it's not the kids that have a hard time with it. It's the adults. The kids are fine."

School officials are under attack over masking

Many adults are definitely not fine. The fight over universal masking and vaccine requirements in schools has become so toxic that, earlier this week, Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association, felt compelled to release a statement defending school officials who are under attack in their communities for following federal safety guidance.

Cardona greets a student with a fist bump at Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire.
/ Tim Gruber for NPR
Cardona greets a student with a fist bump at Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire.

"We will never back down from the importance of freedom of speech, but we cannot—and will not—tolerate aggression, intimidation, threats and violence toward superintendents, board members and educators," Domenech wrote.

Meanwhile, Cardona continues his balancing act — between playing the fist-bumping safety-booster and comforter-in-chief to anxious students, families and educators, and playing hardball with state leaders who he believes are prioritizing politics over public safety.

The day after his stop in Eau Claire, while Cardona visited a vaccine clinic outside Chicago and checked in with more students (and another marching band), his department also sent a warning letter to Texas, saying the agency is investigating whether the state's ban, preventing schools from requiring masks, violates students' civil rights.

Producer Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cardona addresses students and staff during the Locust Lane pep rally. Eau Claire was the first stop of the secretary's "Return-to-School Road Trip," which took him to five Midwestern states this week in a lush, purple bus.
/ Tim Gruber for NPR
Cardona addresses students and staff during the Locust Lane pep rally. Eau Claire was the first stop of the secretary's "Return-to-School Road Trip," which took him to five Midwestern states this week in a lush, purple bus.


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