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U.S. Education Secretary In Charlotte: Schools Must Be Better Than Pre-Pandemic

Miguel Cardona Paw Creek.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona (center) watches a student dance at a Camp CMS summer school program at Paw Creek Elementary School.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visited Johnson C. Smith University and a Charlotte-Mecklenburg summer school Monday to talk about reopening schools stronger than they were before the pandemic.

At Paw Creek Elementary School in northwest Charlotte, he and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams watched CMS teacher Lisa Wright lead children with special needs in making s’mores over a tissue paper campfire.

The lesson incorporated fire safety, communication and counting. It came from a curriculum paid for with federal COVID-19 aid. The s’mores, of course, came from staff who delivered them to the mock campfire.

Camp CMS Paw Creek Lisa Wright.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Lisa Wright uses a tissue-paper campfire as part of a Camp CMS lesson on fire safety and counting.

"I love it!" Cardona said. "I love the props."

Cardona was in Charlotte as part of a tour to talk up President Biden’s Build Back Better program. He repeatedly said that building back in education requires doing more than returning to the pre-pandemic status quo.

"We’re really looking at this as an opportunity to hit the reset button on things that we know weren’t working," he said. "In the past we were making incremental shifts, but we can be a little bolder now."

Cardona didn’t offer a lot of specifics. He says it’s the federal government’s job to provide resources, while local and state bodies make policy.

At Johnson C. Smith, a historically Black university in west Charlotte, he said federal money will pay for better technology, more money for Pell grants and upgrades to old buildings.

Adams and Cardona at JCSU.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (left) and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speak to reporters at Johnson C. Smith University.

"It’s really about investing in some of these buildings that are, you know, over 120, 130 years old in our HBCUs," he said. "The students at HBCUs deserve the same high-quality experience as any other student, in facilities that are top notch, state of the art."

Cardona said schools must do a better job of engaging families than they did before the pandemic.

At Paw Creek, he spoke to parents of special needs students about using remote connections to help all families stay in touch with schools. And he said better family-school connections are important in a region with a large and growing Latino population.

"Our stakeholder engagement can’t be what it was before the pandemic. Those families, Latino families in particular, in many areas were impacted more," he said. "So we have to do more to engage those families in ways that make them feel confident in our schools."

Cardona’s parents are from Puerto Rico and he learned to speak English as a second language.

Now that vaccinations are available and COVID-19 cases are down, Cardona said it's essential to get students back in classrooms.

"A safe and quick return to school is the best thing for all students," he said at Johnson C. Smith.

But he said in an interview that he has no regrets about so many schools being closed for so long last year.

"Not at all," he said. "As a father and husband of an educator, their safety was nothing I would ever compromise."

Cardona was part of those decisions as education commissioner in Connecticut.

"I think we, based on the information we had, we made the right decisions," he said. "Now it’s about making sure that we’re still relying on what science is telling us, to reopen schools as quickly as possible and as safely as possible and ensuring that once the students are in school we’re doing better than we did before."

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Corrected: July 13, 2021 at 8:11 AM EDT
This story was updated to specify that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.