Education Sec. Miguel Cardona addresses learning during pandemic, senators' 1619 Project letter

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke in an exclusive one-on-one interview with FOX 5 Atlanta about the reopening of schools, how the pandemic has caused learning loss, and accusations made by nearly 40 senators that the Department of Education is pushing ideological-based curriculum.

This spring, many students in Georgia are finishing up the school year in the classroom. But reopening schools during the pandemic has presented a host of challenges. That includes things like learning loss and questions about whether children should be vaccinated.

After the COVID-19 pandemic kept many classroom doors shut for over a year, Secretary Cardona said his main focus is on returning all students to in-person learning right now

"The goal really is to get students in now in the spring, yes, we need to be thinking about the fall but not at the expense of the spring. Let’s get our kids in where they belong, in front of their teacher, learning in-person with their friends," Sec. Cardona said.

But while most schools across the country are now offering in-person learning, some districts and some parents, have continued to opt for remote learning citing safety concerns.

Bryant: "Do you think that's a legitimate concern, kids going back to school without being vaccinated?

Cardona: "No. My children have been attending school. I have two kids myself, high schoolers. They’ve been attending school since August. Those mitigation strategies work. So, we know we can reopen schools safely with those mitigation strategies. Vaccination only helps. And I do plan on having my children vaccinated."

Secretary Cardona said the nearly $130 billion in funding provided for schools in the latest COVID relief package will help with those mitigation strategies, like mask-wearing, social distancing, and providing enhanced air ventilation.

Even as students return to schools across the country, many are bringing with them the very real issue of learning loss after struggling to adjust to remote learning.

And the question that lingers about what to do about standardized testing remains yet another concern for many students and their parents

Bryant: "If you had to give the U.S. a letter grade on our response to learning during the pandemic, what letter grade would you give our country compared to the rest of the world?"

Cordona: "You know I’m gonna flip it a little bit. I’m gonna go performance-based assessments instead of posting a letter grade."

"I think we’re doing okay. There's always work to be done. I’m not gonna be satisfied until 100 percent of our students are learning in person or have the opportunity to learn in person."

Also making headlines for the Department of Education was a letter sent by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and 38 Senate Republicans accusing Sec. Cardona’s office of pushing an ideology that teaches children that quote "America is inherently evil."

The letter also makes some strong accusations claiming the department’s efforts "double-down on divisive, radical, and historically-dubious buzzwords and propaganda."

The Senators’ accusation comes following a published new proposed priorities for federal grant guidelines for schools meant to promote "culturally responsive teaching and learning" in American history and civics education. The Department of Education document cites the 1619 Project as a positive example.

But the letter, sent last Thursday, offers a scathing critique of that work claiming the 1619 is a "debunked advocacy campaign" to "reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding." It further states that "Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil."

Cardona: "I’m not overly concerned because the Education Department doesn’t dictate curriculum. But I also know that our educators are well aware of the importance of making sure schools see themselves in the curriculum, see other cultures in their curriculum and that the curriculum allows the opportunity to learn about others. So, I have confidence that our educators are gonna get it right and that our department doesn’t have a role in prescribing curriculum."

Bryant: "Well, it does encourage these sorts of teachings when it comes to getting those federal grants. I know it’s not a lot of money provided through those grant programs but are you signaling, sort of, that you would like to see more of this kind of teaching in schools across the country?"

Cardona: "I’m signaling that we need a curriculum, or that we need to allow educators to develop curriculum, where students see themselves in it and where diverse perspectives are shared."

This specific grant itself makes up only about $5 million of the department's $74 billion budget.

When pressed about the letter directly, the secretary never commented on the letter but reiterated that his department does not focus on curriculum.

This story is being reported out of Atlanta.

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