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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Sunday that states and school districts should use federal COVID-19 relief funds to address teacher shortages as students across the country begin a new school year, urging institutions to quickly take action to provide the kind of comprehensive instruction that many feel has been absent since the start of the pandemic.
"This is a year full of promise and opportunities for students who have, for the last two years, put up with too much," Cardona said on "Face the Nation" Sunday. "And thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the dollars are there to make sure that we can open up our schools with sufficient educators. Our students need more, not less."
Schools are facing an ongoing shortage of teachers, which was an issue before COVID-19 emerged but now poses particularly dire consequences for students in need of additional support. The staggered, intermittent shifts to remote and hybrid learning over the last two and a half years took a toll on students' development, and the Biden administration recently estimated that many are now two to four months behind in key subjects like reading and math as a result.
In July, the White House urged local districts "to leverage American Rescue Plan funds to expand programming and services to help students make up for lost learning time and succeed" during the upcoming school year, noting thethat became law in 2021 included $122 billion for schools.
But the persistent shortage of teachers is creating more complex problems for officials in a number of states like California and Missouri, where some districts have shortened school weeks from five days to four days in response to the lack of resources.
Close to 120 of Missouri's school districts have transitioned to four-day school weeks over the last decade in hopes of recruiting and retaining more staffed educators, and that number could rise to include roughly 25% of the state's school districts during the next year, public radio station KCUR reported in June.
"When I hear reports of districts shortening up their week, it concerns me. Our students need additional support, they need smaller class sizes, they need tutors, they need after-school programs," said Cardona. "So, let's use the American Rescue Plan dollars to bring back retired teachers, to work with universities to make sure that our student teachers are starting a little bit earlier into their profession using the dollars that were put forward by the federal government."
"We think it's important that our students get more this year, not less," he reiterated.
While the federal government cannot order individual school districts to tap funds from the American Rescue Plan, Cardona said "working with" local education officials to increase their investments in education is a priority.
"Let's face it: this teacher shortage is a symptom of something that's been going on for longer than the pandemic, and that's a teacher respect issue," Cardona explained. "Unless we're serious about providing competitive salaries for our educators, better working conditions so that they can continue to grow, and then including teacher voice in this process of reopening or reimagining our schools, we're going to constantly deal with shortage issues."
He noted that this is "especially" true "in our areas that are harder to teach, or where there are less candidates, like bilingual education administration."
"We need to focus on this together, as a country," Cardona said.