Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday that he expects 100% of schools will be open for in-person learning in the fall as vaccination efforts continue amid the pandemic.
"I do, but I really want to focus on getting as many now in the spring," Cardona told Hoda Kotb on TODAY. "I think if we continue with mitigation strategies that we know work and we utilize the American Rescue Plan funding to put in those safeguards that are needed to provide safe environments for our students, we can really continue to make the progress that we're making to get students (back in school) in the spring."
Cardona would like to see "as many (schools) as possible" reopen safely this spring before the end of the year. A new survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that about three-quarters of public schools are open for full-time or part-time in-person learning, with white students more likely to be inside the classroom full time than Black, Hispanic or Asian American students.
"Our students have been waiting for over a year now to be around their school community," he said. "We know schools are safe communities for our students and places where students grow not only academically, but they're really missing that social, emotional connection with other students and their teachers."
Roughly 2.5 million Americans are now being vaccinated daily, but nearly 20 states are reporting a rise in new cases of coronavirus as the United States surpasses 30 million COVID-19 infections.
With President Joe Biden setting the goal of providing the vaccine to anyone who wants it by the end of May, Cardona was asked if it should be mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated before they return to in-person learning.
"I don't think it should be mandatory," he said. "I think what we're seeing is the president taking a stand on ensuring that our educators are vaccinated so that we can safely reopen schools and address some of the concerns and fears that educators have expressed.
"It's really an effort to, in addition to the mitigation strategies, provide the safest learning environment for our students and for our staff."
Schools limited to remote learning have also caused many students to fall behind and experience mental health issues. Cardona suggested that after-school programs and "creative summer learning opportunities" could be ways to help them catch up as another school year winds down.
"This is a long-term project to reconnect with some of the learning loss that happened," Cardona said. "It's gonna take several years."