Los Angeles, CA -
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, center, is joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, to his left, and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, to his right, at Los Angeles High School of the Arts. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Parents say their kids haven’t been the same since COVID. U.S. Education secretary listening

Miguel Cardona listened as L.A. parents talked of social and academic problems faced by students.

One parent spoke of a son who hasn’t been the same since the pandemic. Another talked of her daughter — first having to adjust to being stuck at home, and then to being back in class. A third talked about stress and anger among students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Wednesday asked parents at Los Angeles High School of the Arts in Koreatown how the pandemic had affected their children — and also them — and what they needed. And parents spoke up.

With a nudge from Cardona, improved mental health services topped their list, along with a desire to make their public schools better than before COVID-19 laid waste to normalcy.

“He’s not the same as he was before,” parent Leticia Rogel said of her ninth-grade son. “He’s still not comfortable. He’s very shy now.”

Wendy Gulato’s daughter was an eighth-grader in a different school when campuses closed in March 2020.

While students were learning from home over Zoom, it was hard to get her up in the morning, get her to get dressed and persuade her to leave the camera on so teachers and classmates could see her. Even with school back in session, her now-10th grader sometimes struggles with social interactions.

Parents described behaviors that are typically associated with adolescence, but that seemed exacerbated to extremes. They also described a school system that has struggled to respond proportionately to the needs of students, a problem that predated the pandemic, Cardona said

“The pandemic exacerbated what we knew students needed before,” Cardona said. “There were achievement gaps before. There were needs for mental health supports before.”

It took a historic crisis to generate the unprecedented response needed to close schools, develop remote learning, flood campuses with aid and ultimately reopen them. The same urgency, Cardona said, is needed in the long term to support students and educators.

“There is no end date to the impact of the pandemic,” he said. “We have to continue to support education.”

He spoke similarly on Monday in San Diego to 1,300 educators at the Carnegie Foundation’s Summit on Improvement in Education conference.

“If we go back to how our schools were in March 2020, we’ve failed our kids,” Cardona told them.

Cardona’s listening tour — scheduled to move to Orlando, Fla., on Thursday — also was his opportunity to talk up the Biden administration’s proposed budget. Its increased education funding could meet headwinds in Congress. Cardona also highlighted Biden’s record, which includes billions in one-time pandemic relief to L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system.

In emphasizing mental health needs, Cardona urged parents, especially Latinos, to overcome any stigma they may attach to acknowledging mental-health problems.

Parent representative Raquel Martinez, a staff member whose children graduated from the arts high school, said she had to persuade a parent to seek counseling after her daughter had become reluctant to attend school. The parent had feared her child could be taken away if the issue came to light.

“We see a lot of students with anger, stress,” Martinez said. “So it would be very beneficial for the parents to have workshops. So we know how to deal with the stress. Everything that our students are going through right now is something that we never experienced before.”

L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho, who sat next to Cardona in the school’s library, said that help is on the way.

“In less than 100 days, we will have a parent academy at LAUSD with a course to help parents,” Carvalho said.

“You ask and instantly you have it,” Cardona said, laughing, in Spanish. Cardona and Carvalho moved easily and often between Spanish and English, as did L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who also participated. Three of the parents, including Ana Guardado, spoke only in Spanish.

“We started on something new that we did not know about,” Guardado said of the pandemic and remote learning. At home, her now-10th grade daughter “was really not concentrating. She was not taking it and her responsibility seriously.”

This fall, with campuses reopened, there were more adjustments, Guardado said.

“Everything is a habit,” Guardado said. “And she was already adapted to home and eating during class, you know, and not doing the homework because we had time to turn it in.

Even now, her daughter communicates with peers mostly by text and she wonders if it would be better for them to meet up in person.

Cardona, the former education commissioner of Connecticut who started out as a teacher, has led the country’s education department for just over a year. He has limited power over local schools but played a key role early in the Biden administration during the first part of 2021 in pushing for reopening campuses nationwide. At the time, teacher-union leaders were split on when and how to reopen.

In an interview, Carvalho said that Cardona could provide additional help on several fronts. He’d like more flexibility in spending the one-time aid so that he could stretch out use of the funds and prevent a sharp drop-off in services. It’s difficult to spend the money instantly and effectively in part, he said, because his district and others have been unable to find the mental health professionals and others that — at least for now — they can afford to hire.

Carvalho also is seeking $600 million to cover district costs for coronavirus testing and immunizations.

Common themes have emerged at Cardona’s stops.

He says that every student should have access to a mental health professional, every student should participate in an extracurricular activity and schools should provide 30 minutes of tutoring, three days a week, to struggling students.

Tutoring got off to a slow start during the pandemic in L.A. Unified and has so far reached fewer than 1 in 10 students, according to data presented at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Cardona also said he’s well aware that school staff and families are dealing with fatigue and burnout. COVID-19 safety measures have added stress, as has backlash over vaccines, masking and even such matters as teaching about racial justice.

Teacher shortages have long been an issue for public K-12 schools, but the pandemic exacerbated it.

A National Education Assn. survey published in January found that more than half of members surveyed are thinking about leaving the profession sooner than planned.

Cardona said schools should use some pandemic aid to address the teacher shortage. Solutions include having teachers-in-training work as substitutes, special education aides and tutors.

Cardona also called on states to increase teacher pay, provide grant funding for teacher residency programs and establish loan forgiveness and scholarship programs for teachers. And he wants to pay retirees to come back and help out.

Efforts on some of these strategies are already underway at the state and local level but often with limited immediate impact.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.