Vaccinating teachers top priority, says US education secretary

‘We must continue to reopen America’s schools as quickly and as safely as possible’

Jill Biden and education secretary Miguel Cardona visit a classroom as they tour Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty

Jill Biden and education secretary Miguel Cardona visit a classroom as they tour Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty

 

The US’s newly confirmed education secretary said vaccinating teachers against Covid-19 was his “top priority”, as he visited two schools with first lady Jill Biden on Wednesday in his first day in the role.

Miguel Cardona (45), a former teacher and education commissioner from Connecticut, was sworn in by vice-president Kamala Harris as the nation’s 12th secretary of education on Tuesday night, after he was confirmed by the Senate.

“We must continue to reopen America’s schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible,” Mr Cardona said during a visit to the Benjamin Franklin primary school in Meridien, Connecticut.

The state was one of the first to reopen schools last autumn, with most offering some form of in-person learning since August.

Ms Biden, a teacher with a PhD in education, said she too wanted to get back to the classroom safely. “Teachers want to be back. We want to be back. Last week I said to my students, ‘hey guys how you doing?’ And they said ‘Dr B, we’re doing okay, but we can’t wait to be back to the classroom’.” 

The visit took place amid a renewed push by the White House for schools to reopen. President Joe Biden previously said he aimed to have all schools open within his first 100 days in office, but tensions between teacher unions and education authorities in many states have made the task difficult.

Mr Biden announced on Tuesday that all teachers, administration staff and childcare workers should receive at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot by the end of March. But individual states and school districts still have the ultimate power to decide on school reopenings.  

White House recommendations

Asked about the limitations on the White House’s recommendations, press secretary Jen Psaki noted that the president had directed the federal government’s pharmacy vaccine programme to prioritise education workers. She said vaccination was not a prerequisite for schools to open but one of the “mitigation steps” that can be taken to ensure that teachers can go back safely.

“The president wants the kids to be back in school – this is part of the effort,” she said.

As most Biden cabinet nominees continued to be confirmed by the Senate, including Gina Raimondo as commerce secretary, Mr Biden was forced to withdraw his nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget – his first cabinet defeat. Neera Tandem had attracted criticism for past inflammatory tweets targeting Republicans and some Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, and was struggling to attract the 51 Senate votes needed.

“I have the utmost respect for her record of accomplishment, her experience and her counsel, and I look forward to having her serve in a role in my administration,” Mr Biden said.

Ms Psaki said there would be no announcement on a future nominee this week.