Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expressed a sense of urgency regarding the need to meet school staffing shortages as children return to in-person classroom learning while facing the coronavirus pandemic.
At a Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hearing on Thursday, Cardona agreed with Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., that the lack of teachers and other school-related service providers such as bus drivers is a pressing need, especially when it comes to those with disabilities.
"Safely reopening schools means we have enough staff to keep everyone safe and supported," Cardona said.
Cardona said his family has had experience facing the effects of the staffing shortage, as his children have had to deal with not having bus drivers for extracurricular activities.
The secretary said that the government must "boldly" address the problem. He said that in addition to using federal dollars from programs such as the American Rescue Plan to provide competitive salaries, the government should also invest in "pipeline programs" that provide opportunities for paraeducators to become teachers.
"I’m really excited about the opportunity in the Build Back Better agenda to make sure that we’re investing in our profession, paying livable wages, and making sure we create pipelines with incentives for paraeducators and other educators to go in, to get their teaching credential to serve as special education teachers, bilingual teachers, and other shortage areas," Cardona said. "It’s all hands on deck. I think we have the right policy and we need to make sure we’re making bold decisions that let that happen."
Another issue that came up at the hearing was the idea of a coronavirus vaccine mandate for students 12 and older. Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked both Cardona and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra about this.
Becerra expressed support for mandates, but noted Washington's limits in this area. He said that in his position as HHS secretary, "I can tell you that my jurisdiction does not include schools and requiring 12-year-olds."
He then went on to say that both personally and in his professional capacity he is "very supportive" of mandates from school districts or state or local officials, but that "the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction to tell schools what to do."
Similarly Cardona, when asked whether he is in favor of a federal mandate, also said that such decisions should be "at the state and local level."