A growing number of states are lifting mask mandates in schools, but Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says that prematurely easing restrictions could lead to more issues for in-person learning.
"We have to have our health experts at the table," Cardona told ABC News Live on Tuesday. "Most importantly, we have to keep our schools open; our students cannot afford another round of disruption."
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Delaware Gov. John Carney announced Monday that students will no longer be required to wear a mask in schools by mid-March.
Since a few months after the pandemic hit the United States, local politicians have come under pressure from parents and communities on both sides of the debate over children wearing masks in schools.
"We have people that are very passionate about what they believe," Cardona said. "We have to remember to engage the perspectives of different parents, teachers."
Cardona responded to claims of parents who argue that wearing a face mask negatively impacts their child's learning, by pointing to a likely outcome of lifting restrictions too soon.
"You know what hinders kids' learning? Being quarantined because they have COVID, or not having a teacher because their teacher has COVID," he said.
Some experts say it is too soon to end mask mandates in schools because vaccination rates are not high enough among children and new cases are still being reported. Experts are especially concerned for children under 5 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. Pfizer requested emergency use authorization for children 6 months old to 5 years old on Feb. 1, and a Food and Drug Administration advisory meeting is scheduled for Feb. 15.
"Many of our educators have children under the age of 5 that they go home to," said Cardona. "We need to make sure our schools are safe for them to work. We have to honor and respect our educators and leaders who have difficult decisions."
The education secretary said the easing of coronavirus protocols in the classroom are making some educators feel uncomfortable coming to work. Since the pandemic began, there's been a teacher shortage, due to fears of contracting the virus, remote learning and an overall shift in how our nation's educators teach and interact with young people.
"It's been tough to be an educator the last couple years, not only because of the changes that they've had to experience in terms of being in-person one day and being fully remote the next, but they've been under a lot of pressure," said Cardona. "There's strong feelings in the community, oftentimes teachers are being blamed schools are not open."
He noted that the country has made progress in keeping schools open throughout the last year, stating that in the beginning of President Joe Biden's term, less than 50% of classes were held in person. Now, all schools have opened their doors, though some are still operating on a hybrid schedule.
Cardona said it's important for school districts and politicians to remember what has succeeded in keeping students and educators safe in schools.
"What I'm hearing from educators is that they just want to make sure that their work environment is safe for their students," he added. "But they also understand this pandemic has taken a toll and that we're ready to move forward, but we can only do so if we protect our students and our staff, including the students who are not yet in our schools, the little ones that parents are going back home to."