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Education Secretary Cardona praises newly reopened school in Maryland during reopening tour

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona talks to students at Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School in Adelphi, Md., on Tuesday as part of his national school-reopening tour.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona talks to students at Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School in Adelphi, Md., on Tuesday as part of his national school-reopening tour. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)

Four days into the reopening of schools in Prince George’s County, students paused during a lesson about opinion writing to hear a few opinions from visiting Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

“Fourth grade!” Cardona exclaimed to the class at Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School, which had been offering views on pizza. “I love fourth grade. I taught fourth grade. It’s the best year, isn’t it?”

They did not disagree, and before their lesson went further, Cardona gave a quick pop quiz of his own. “Instagram or TikTok?” he said. “How should I handle my social media?”

“Both!” a girl called out quickly, winning his praise.

The exuberance and banter went on as Cardona toured the 1,000-student high-poverty school in Adelphi, in the Maryland suburbs, where about half of children are learning in person part time and half are getting their instruction fully virtually.

His appearance in the 130,000-student school system — the second largest in Maryland — was part of a national school-reopening tour that began two weeks ago in Massachusetts and Delaware, with Cardona focusing on best practices for reopening and challenges that schools are facing.

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At the elementary school, the nation’s top education leader looked for Zoom screens in classrooms and greeted children learning from home. “Nice to see you!” he told “Zoomies” as he peered into a computer set up in teacher Glenna Pavelka’s fourth-grade class.

Touring the school, he was found fifth-graders working on math, first-graders doing subtraction and prekindergartners taking a morning movement break. As they danced — to a high-energy tune of “shake, shake, shake,” with teacher Nayda Arroyo leading the way — Cardona swayed along and proclaimed them “great dancers.”

“This is why reopening matters — the sense of energy, the vibe that’s going on,” he said.

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It was a theme Cardona returned to several times: the value of schools being open, not just in the fall, but now, in spring. President Biden made an early promise to have a majority of K-8 schools open within his first 100 days in office.

The Maryland school, with students in prekindergarten to fifth grade, serves students from struggling families, with 85 percent qualifying for free and reduced-cost meals. More than 90 percent are Hispanic. Eight in 10 are English-language learners.

Jones Elementary is one of 65 “community schools” in the county — each considered a hub for family support and social services, along with student learning.

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Cardona visited days after Biden proposed a budget that included $443 million to support community schools, up from $30 million. The White House said these schools “play a critical role in providing comprehensive wraparound services to students and their families, from after school, to adult education opportunities, and health and nutrition services.”

Tuesday’s visit ended with a roundtable during which Cardona heard from educators, a school board member, a parent and Prince George’s County Public Schools chief executive Monica Goldson. He lauded the warmth of the school, called it “a great example of a community school,” and discussed issues attendees raised about the importance of family support, emotional health and attention to students most affected by the pandemic’s disruptions. He highlighted a fifth-grade classroom where teacher Yeama Sow had multiple screens and a speaker system to reach children near and far. “It looked like a NASA launch site control center,” he said.

He told the group that he looked forward to a more normal school year in the fall. “But we can’t wait till the fall,” he said. “We have to think now. Every day that a student is not in school is a day that they’re missing that peer-to-peer interaction, that teacher-to-student interaction in person . . . There’s no substitute for that.

Hours later, as the school day ended, educators at Jones Elementary dropped into the office of Principal Evylyn Quinones.

“The entire staff is thrilled,” she said, saying the visit was a boost during a difficult transition from remote to in-person learning. “They feel very proud and honored.”

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.