US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says there "is much work to be done" to continue the progress being made on school reopenings nationwide.
He notes the biggest challenges include aging school buildings and ventilation, adequate transportation, and ensuring overall equity and access to education, according to a memo Cardona sent President Biden's Chief of Staff Ron Klain on Friday that was obtained exclusively by CNN.
The memo outlines Cardona's findings from visiting 10 schools across nine states and Washington, DC, to observe how districts were handling reopening more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, he suggested the $130 billion of American Rescue Plan funding destined for schools could help districts address those challenges.
"I saw firsthand during my tour how difficult the school year has been for students, parents, teachers, and school staff," Cardona wrote. "Whether the school had just recently transitioned into a hybrid model or been fully open for months, the work has been challenging for all."
Since January, the number of public school districts offering hybrid or full-time in-person education has been on the rise, with more than 90% of K-8 schools open in April, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
That does not, however, include high schools, which have reopened at a slower pace than elementary and middle schools.
That number is also not reflective of student attendance, which hovers just over 50% for fourth-graders and just over 40% for eighth-graders attending school fully in-person for the month of April.
In his memo to Klain, Cardona notes the racial and ethnic disparity in school enrollment, citing April 2021 data from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).
"IES data showed positive trends in in-person enrollment rates across racial and ethnic groups in April, with significantly higher rates than first reported earlier this year," Cardona wrote. "However, the same data showed that 29% of Black students, 26% of Hispanic students, and 40% of Asian students chose remote learning options in April even when offered in-person learning, compared to just 13% of their White counterparts."
Cardona said his discussions with parents and students revealed lack of childcare and a lack of confidence in schools reopening safely as the main factors contributing to the lower number of minorities willing to go back to attending school in-person.
Among the challenges Cardona witnessed were old school buildings and outdated ventilation equipment. He said the schools he visited in Philadelphia and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, both needed to buy new airflow systems to reduce the possible spread of Covid-19 in schools.
"Many districts are using federal emergency relief dollars to purchase and implement CDC-recommended approaches to improve ventilation and air flow within classrooms and school buildings," Cardona wrote.
Another area of concern is school buses -- where additional buses, drivers and monitors are needed to adhere to distancing rules. Cardona said this issue was raised in both rural and urban districts.
"For example, some communities in DC had concerns around consistent mask-wearing on buses, leading to family hesitation to return to in-person learning. Other communities, such as Laurel, Delaware, found success in implementing three feet of distancing on buses -- but this reduced capacity on buses led to more constraints on in-person enrollment in school buildings," Cardona wrote. "Laurel took an innovative approach in extending their school day to maximize learning on the days students are learning in-person."
In his memo to Klain, Cardona said he expects all districts will "provide every student with the option to be back in the classroom full-time this fall." As part of the department's next steps in achieving that goal, it will host a summit later this month to discuss "inequities in education prior to and as a result of the pandemic."
The department will also put out resources for districts and work with them through the summer as many work to catch students up on academic losses suffered over the past 15 months.
"The summer is a critical window for students to make up for not just lost instructional time, but also lost extracurricular and community-building time. It is also an opportunity to provide more families and students with access to vaccinations as we get ready for the 2021-2022 school year," Cardona wrote.