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Education Secretary Cardona Talks Pandemic Relief, Federal Backing and His Own Appreciation for Those on the Front Lines at 1st General Session

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke at the National Conference on Education's first General Session. Photo by Jimmy Minichello.

“The work you are going to be doing over the next two years is critical to our country,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said at Thursday’s 1st General Session of the AASA national conference in Nashville. “This is as close to a reset as we get.”

Speaking alongside AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech, he told a packed ballroom at the Music City Center that school leaders must “meet the moment” and “bring education to another level.”

Pandemic relief money represents the federal government’s partnership in that enterprise, he said.

“I think we’ve all been conditioned to do more with less,” he said. But the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is a game-changer that challenges superintendents to “think outside the box.”

Redesigned and modernized schools must be able to function well for decades to come, and that depends on inspiring support from all constituencies, said Cardona, who previously worked as a central-office administrator and state education chief in Connecticut before moving to Washington for the Cabinet role. One question that superintendents need to ask as they spend ESSER money is, “How are we communicating effectively?”

The core goals are unchanged, Cardona added. Those are to ensure all students receive quality education, access to higher education and the opportunity to pursue a happy life. 

In a question-and-answer session with Domenech, Cardona said he has been “truly inspired” by superintendents’ “professionalism and student-centeredness.”

He added he also has great respect for teachers, saying, “We have to make sure the teacher voice is part of the conversation when we talk about improving education.”

And superintendents need to be empathetic to the stress that teachers are experiencing as they strive to reestablish a sense of normalcy.

About 140,000 students have lost a parent or caregiver during the pandemic, and school district employees also have lost family members, he said. In the same way that public education has reoriented itself in recent years to think about the whole child, it is time to “think about the whole educator,” Cardona said.

At the same time, school leaders need to take care of themselves. As on an airplane, one must put one’s own oxygen mask on first before helping others, he said.

(Eric Randall is a senior editor with Conference Daily Online and editor of OnBoard with the New York State School Boards Association in Latham, N.Y.)

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