Education chief: 'We must make up for lost time' in schools

Virus Outbreak Education

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Thursday that the nation’s schools must act more urgently to help millions of students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. "We must make up for lost time,” he said.

Striving to keep schools open is no longer enough, Cardona said in a speech laying out his priorities. He urged schools to use billions of dollars in federal aid to expand tutoring and mental health counseling, and to close achievement gaps that have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to make schools stronger than they were before, he said, seeing a “chance for a reset in education."

“Despite our country being in the midst of a surge, I know our children cannot wait any longer,” Cardona said from the department's headquarters. “They have suffered enough, and this is our moment.”

He took a harder edge on the question of school closures, which are seen as a political liability for Democrats given the mounting frustration among parents. Most schools have remained open during the spread of the omicron variant, but scattered closures have roiled some communities.

“Safely reopening schools is the baseline, but it’s not good enough,” Cardona said. “We must make up for lost time.”

He said schools should now turn their full focus toward helping students recover, especially those from groups that faced education inequities even before the pandemic.

As a start, he urged all schools to provide at least 30 minutes of tutoring three days a week for every student who has fallen behind. He said schools should aim to double the number of counselors, social workers and mental health workers in their buildings — a goal previously set by President Joe Biden.

The education secretary said schools should be able to achieve those goals using federal dollars from Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which sent $130 billion to the nation’s schools last year.

Most schools have barely dipped into that pool, however, and many are still deciding how to use it before a spending deadline in late 2024. Biden last week voiced frustration with how slowly the money is being spent. “Use it" was his message for states and schools.

Cardona said the money should go out now for more counselors and other staff members.

He asked schools to look beyond the pandemic even as some continue to face disruption caused by COVID-19. The omicron variant has led to waves of teacher absences in some areas, leaving some too short-staffed to stay open. Teachers unions caution that the problem will only worsen as exhausted educators quit or retire.

Cardona, a former teacher himself, said teachers need to be paid more and treated with “the respect and the dignity they deserve.” The White House has proposed federal money to support pay increases, but Cardona said it's up to states and districts to give teachers a livable wage.

“It’s on us to make sure education jobs are ones that educators don’t want to leave,” he said.

Looking to Congress, Cardona pressed for passage of several key provisions of Biden’s education plan, including an increase in Title I funding for low-income schools, more money for special education and universal preschool. All three have been tangled up in political deadlock in Washington.

In higher education, Cardona's priorities center on student debt. So far, the Biden administration has erased $15 billion in debt for borrowers in certain programs, and it recently relaxed the rules for the troubled Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

In December, Biden also extended a pause on student loan payments through May 1, a move meant to help millions of borrowers put off loan payments during the pandemic. Cardona said today's burden of student debt is “unacceptable” and that “no one should be forced to make a payment they can’t afford.”

He did not say whether the administration will pursue wider debt cancellation. Biden has faced mounting pressure from progressive Democrats to forgive huge swaths of student debt. More than 80 lawmakers sent a letter on Tuesday calling for the cancellation of $50,000 in student debt for every borrower.

Nearly a year ago, the White House said it would study the legality of such a move, and Biden previously said he would support erasing up to $10,000 per borrower through legislation. The administration has yet to issue a public decision on the issue.