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‘Our Parents Have Done Enough’: Cardona Urges Schools to Stay Open, Biden Touts Safety Measures as Omicron Cases Spread

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With the Omicron variant now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. and cases spiking, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday urged school leaders not to retreat from in-person learning.

”I don’t think we should be considering remote options,” Cardona said Tuesday in an interview with The 74. “Our students deserve more, not less, and our parents have done enough to help balance school closures the first year of the pandemic.”

The secretary’s comments, however, come amid a sharp increase in schools already shifting to remote learning, either because of COVID-19 or staff shortages. According to Burbio, which tracks schools’ response to the pandemic, there are 646 school closures this week, up from 356 last week. Following the holiday break, 421 closures are expected, but that’s still less than a fifth of the number of closures in August, when the Delta variant postponed the return of many students to in-person learning. 

Cardona’s comments amplified those made by the president in an afternoon news conference Tuesday.

“Today, we don’t have to shut down schools because of a case of COVID-19,” Biden said. He urged parents to vaccinate their children and said the best way to protect those under 5, not yet eligible for vaccines, is to ensure their family members and caregivers are fully vaccinated and have had a booster. “The science is clear and overwhelming,” he said. “We know how to keep our kids safe.”

The president announced several steps to increase COVID testing availability and expand capacity at hospitals. The administration will deliver 500,000 at-home tests to those who want them, starting in January, open more pop-up vaccination clinics, and make emergency response teams available to hospitals.

On Friday — the last day before the holiday break for many schools — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two studies showing that test-to-stay procedures can prevent lost instructional days due to quarantine. Cardona said he didn’t have a hand in pushing for the announcement before the break, but that, “our teams talk regularly.”

“I was glad they were able to communicate it early enough,” he said. “As we’re thinking about 2022, we can use test-to-stay, as we’re thinking about how to utilize the [American Rescue Plan] funds, we can use test-to-stay to limit quarantine and keep our children in school.”

The secretary added that there’s room for improvement in providing up-to-date numbers on school closures. The National Center for Education Statistics produces data on the percentages of students attending school in-person or remotely, but the results are released monthly, compared to Burbio’s weekly update, and in the past, have frequently been months behind. The latest data, released last week, reflects in-person and remote learning as of Dec. 3.

“We’re going to continue to refine those systems, especially if there’s an increase in spread,” he said.

According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has tracked school closings and openings since the beginning of the pandemic, only eight states have provided schools with detailed guidance this school year on when they should consider closing. 

Cardona said it’s important to not only know what percentage of students are in school, but “what’s causing potential, short-term remote learning options or what they need in order to keep their schools open.”

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