The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Jill Biden, Cardona to visit school in Meriden

- By Emilie Munson

First lady Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will visit two public schools open for inperson learning on Wednesday, one in Meriden — Cardona’s hometown where he previously taught — and one in Waterford, Pa.

The trip is intended to showcase the Biden’s administra­tion’s commitment to helping schools reopen for in-person classes, despite the ongoing coronaviru­s pandemic. President Joe Biden has set a goal of getting a majority of K-12 students taking classes in school five days a week by his 100th day in office, April 30.

Biden and Cardona will visit Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden, where all students who wish to do so have been able to take in-person classes five days a week since before Labor Day, Meriden Superinten­dent of Schools Mark Benigni said.

Gov. Ned Lamont will also attend the school visit and may make remarks at the event, Max Reiss, Lamont’s communicat­ions director, said Tuesday.

The visit will showcase the 343-student elementary school as a national model for reopening and highlight Cardona’s previous work to help schools operate during the pandemic. Cardona, who was Connecticu­t’s education commission­er since February 2020, encouraged schools to reopen and gave them detailed guidance, but did not mandate in-person classes everywhere.

“To offer in-person learning you need to be willing to work with your teachers. We have a close collaborat­ive relationsh­ip with our teachers union — they were at the table deciding our plans,” said Benigni. “We want to make sure our students are wearing their masks, that they’re washing their hands and that they’re watching their distance, but also we looked at traffic patterns in the hallways ... we spaced out rooms.”

Three percent of students and 10 percent of staff in Meriden Public Schools have tested positive for coronaviru­s this school year, according to data published by the district. Less than a third of students and a quarter of staff members have quarantine­d.

Cardona has said his top priority as secretary will be helping schools across the country reopen for in-person learning.

He was sworn in as secretary of education by Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday evening, after being confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan vote on Monday night. Wednesday will be Cardona’s first full day as secretary and for Biden, the trip will be one of her first domestic trips.

“It’s the honor of my life to be sworn in as nation’s 12th education secretary,” Cardona tweeted on Tuesday. “Now it’s time to get to work for students.”

Biden is a community college educator and has a doctorate in education, as

does Cardona. In Meriden, they will receive a tour of the Ben Franklin Elementary School Wednesday morning, before traveling to Pennsylvan­ia.

“They will highlight the key CDC mitigation strategies that the schools have implemente­d successful­ly in these locations, listen to the challenges they are facing due to the pandemic, including the academic, social and emotional needs of students, highlight the additional resources in the American Rescue Plan needed for schools to remain open and address the needs of students, and thank educators for their work in supporting students and their families,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

Local officials have been scrambling to prepare for the visit with local police coordinati­ng with the Secret Service on security and public works employees launching some last-minute sidewalk cleaning and pothole-filling to spruce up the city.

Meriden Mayor Kevin Scarpati and Meriden Board of Education President Robert Kosienski are both expected to attend the local school visit, as will state Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams, D-Meriden. Members of

Connecticu­t’s Congressio­nal delegation are not expected to be there due to votes in Washington, D.C.

Cardona previously was a fourth grade teacher and principal in Meriden, but taught at different schools than the one he and Biden will visit Wednesday. His wife, Marissa, is a middle school liaison, and his two children attend Meriden schools.

“Miguel is a very personable guy. He’s very down to earth, someone who you can easily have a conversati­on with,” Benigni said Tuesday. “It will be great to see him and reconnect and congratula­te him formally face to face tomorrow.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance for reopening schools last month and has crafted detailed recommenda­tions on how schools can operate safely during the pandemic.

Congress is considerin­g a $1.9 trillion coronaviru­s relief bill that would include billions to support education institutio­ns.

Benigni said he believes additional funding will help schools continue to educate students during the pandemic while shoulderin­g new expenses like additional staff, plexiglass, cleaning supplies and other costs needed to function. He also advocated for his staff to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Connecticu­t has designated priority designatio­n clinics for teachers and educators to be vaccinated before the general population.

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