8News: U.S. Secretary of Education tours Virginia school to see how federal relief is aiding safe reopening

8NEWS, JACKIE DEFUSCO

The country’s top education official toured a Virginia school to find out how federal coronavirus relief is helping students return to in-person learning and what more can be done moving forward. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was joined by Gov. Ralph Northam and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger at Glen Allen High School in Henrico on Wednesday.

Schools have benefited from various federal funding streams during the pandemic. Most recently, the General Assembly approved $250 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for qualifying ventilation improvement projects in public schools. Funds will be distributed to schools based on projected enrollment with a minimum allocation of $200,000 per division. Localities will have to match the grant award to get the money. 

While air quality improvements are an important COVID-19 mitigation strategy, some districts were hoping to use ARPA resources for long-overdue school construction projects, which the federal government has discouraged due to its spending deadline.

8News asked Secretary Cardona to respond to frustrations surrounding state and federal funding restrictions, as some fear they will force school districts to pour money into buildings that need to be replaced entirely. 

“I visited a school recently where they used the funds to get a better ventilation system, to get better airflow, to make sure students can enter safely but you’re bringing up an important issue. We shouldn’t stop here,” Cardona said. “Infrastructure is equity and we know that with the Build Back Better agenda, we’re on the path toward that.” 
 
Also within the Biden Administration’s ‘Return to School Roadmap’ is a goal to double school counselors, psychologists and social workers to help address a reported increase in mental health needs among students.

It was among the focuses of a round table with Henrico students, teachers and support professionals. 

Northam said the General Assembly approved state dollars towards this priority earlier this year.

“We have invested a significant amount more money for more counselors in our schools but to have that access where they are able to talk to other students peer to peer is so important,” Northam said.

Cardona echoed the importance of that investment, adding that schools may be able to use federal relief to boost staffing in this area as well.

“Reopening schools is about more than just getting students in front of you to do the academic work. It is about connecting with students, making sure their socio-emotional needs are met,” Cardona said. 

Also during that round table, several teachers expressed support for a proposal in Congress to make school meals free for all students, regardless of their family’s income. That policy was put in place during the pandemic but Spanberger said legislation could make it permanent. 

“One of the benefits they saw was the removal of shame related to needing access to school lunch and a level of inclusivity,” Spanberger said. “Far too frequently, students who are hungry or families that do have a need don’t feel comfortable making that known at school.”

Cardona was also asked if he supports vaccine mandates for school employees. He said that’s a choice best left to localities.

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