Education secretary says “we can keep our children safe” in schools

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For the second time during the coronavirus pandemic, children, parents and educators are facing issues returning to school. Like most kids, Jeremy Agosto and Nana Okwaning want to go back.

“You know, it's going to help everyone mentally, 'cause, like, you can actually have people to talk to, relate to, new friends, teachers help you,” Agosto said. 

“When I was in school, I felt safe. I felt like I was actually learning something,” Okwaning said.

Both are vaccinated and play on the football team at the Harry Truman High School in the Bronx. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently visited their school to talk with student athletes about a safe return to the classroom and the field.

“We know students learn best in the classroom. We know that for their — not only their academic needs, but their social and emotional well-being, they belong in the classroom,” Cardona told CBS News correspondent Meg Oliver.

But a new CBS News poll finds 69% of parents are concerned their children will get COVID-19 in school. Cases are skyrocketing among kids 12 to 17, up almost 1,400% since June.

“Is it safe to open full-time with the Delta variant?” Oliver asked Cardona.

“You know, as a father, I wouldn't send my children in if I didn't feel they were safe,” he said. “I wouldn't ask anyone to do something that I wouldn't do for my own children. My children are going back to school. My children are getting on the soccer field. My children are getting on that volleyball court. 

“Because I know as a father, that their mental health depends on their ability to engage in the community. And, I'm fortunate that my children are of the age where they can get vaccinated, and I know some parents will say, ‘Well, my children don't have the vaccine.' But the reality is, if we follow the mitigation strategies, we can keep our children safe.”

Much of the concern coming from parents is the alarming rise of infections in kids. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in just three weeks the number of COVID cases in children nearly tripled, though hospitalization rates remain low at only 2%, and deaths are rare, with less than 0.03% of cases involving kids.

Cardona said reassuring parents is an “ongoing job for educators across the country.”

“I recognize that fear,” he said. “I experienced that fear as a parent. But if our schools are open and honest with parents, and take the questions that they have and allay their fears, and even show them examples of it, give them tours of the school, parents will see that their children can be safe.”

The issue of vaccines is also a safety factor when it comes to the kids. According to the CDC, 54.7% of 16- to 17-year-olds have received one dose of the vaccine, and among 12- to 15-year-olds, that number is 45.4%, the lowest vaccination rate for any age group.

Asked if there should be a vaccine mandate for teachers and students, Cardona said he “would support it.”

“I know that vaccines work. And I know that across the country 90% of the educators have gotten vaccinated,” he said. “I don't have that authority to mandate vaccines. But what I can tell you is in those places where they're relaxed about it, we have hospitals that are overrun. And those places where they are getting vaccinated, we're able to function more normally.”

The football team at Harry Truman all plan to be fully vaccinated when school reopens in September. 

“One main reason I got my vaccine was to be, like, a role model for my other teammates, because I know some of them are, like, hesitant,” Okwaning said.

Their head coach, John Shepherd, says students returning to school is critical.

“Somewhere maybe around a third of our student athletes I would say were at danger for slipping through the cracks,” he told Oliver.

Shepherd has been spending his summer calling homes and trying to get them to come back.

“When all of the circumstances align, and a student can return safely to participating in, you know, all the things that they love doing, it's just great to be able to be a part of it,” he said.

Part of the safe return to school comes with a recommendation from the CDC that all students and staff wear masks, and just last week, President Biden ordered Cardona to take action — including possible legal action — against governors who ban masking in public schools.

“It saddens me to think that poor policies and political agendas are going to get in the way of those kids getting on the field. We need to follow the mitigation strategies that we know work. Get the politics out of this. Let the education leaders do their jobs,” Cardona said. “To be very honest with you, I wish we didn't have to wear masks. I know my own children, they don't want to wear masks. I have mask fatigue myself. But if it means giving my children an opportunity to be in school, I'm for it.”

A CBS News poll found 36% of parents believe masks should be optional. For any state planning to defy mask requirements, Cardona said the Biden administration is prepared to investigate through the Office for Civil Rights. Eight states have banned them altogether.  

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