Fulfilling Pres. Joe Biden’s pledge to reopen schools will be the biggest challenge and test for Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary.

Tensions between educators, parents, and local officials are escalating across the United States as schools attempt to resume in-person classes. Cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia are braced for protests, strikes, and lawsuits. The pandemic has also raised new questions about how to handle testing, accountability, and student achievement as well as how to help students transition into the workforce.

Cardona, a former teacher, administrator, and Connecticut state commissioner appears to have all the right tools to push policies focused on student learning and increasing opportunities. Moving the needle, though, will depend on his ability to provide effective leadership and implement policy priorities. Our school leadership research at the George W. Bush Institute has determined that that’s true across the educational space: You can have a great idea, but if you don’t know how to turn that vision into reality, you’re sunk.

Many local officials and parents are eager to get kids back to in-person classes, citing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools can reopen safely with necessary precautions. Learning loss, missing students, and increasing mental health concerns are catastrophic for our young people – and disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic students. While this is not lost on teachers, they are scared for their lives as the COVID-19 case count grows and access to vaccines remains limited.

Cardona and Biden, like the Bush Institute, recognize that clear guidance and direct communication are critical to resolving this standoff and refocusing on learning. Stakeholder concerns are not unilateral. Black and Latino parents express more concern that schools are opening too quickly, perceptions rooted in disproportionate COVID-19 rates, and historical mistrust of the educational system’s ability to serve their needs. At the same time, many schools – public and private – have reopened this year, leading to wildly different student experiences around the country.

The pandemic has illuminated deep-seated education inequalities. The recovery will require significant investments in time and resources. It also requires data.

When in-person schooling came to a halt in 2020, the Education Department waived federal academic testing requirements for all states. Cardona will need to make a quick decision on whether he will extend this waiver, as many teachers’ unions and some states have requested.  As education commissioner of Connecticut, he had already announced that his state would be administering 2021 year-end exams, “the most accurate guidepost to our promise of equity for ALL,” according to a Connecticut Education Department memo.

At the Bush Institute, we have long emphasized that measuring student learning can lead to more equitable schools. If we don’t test, we don’t have the data, and we can’t see where the needs are. That holds true especially during the pandemic, given the inequitable range of student experiences since March 2020.

Cardona and the Education Department can help states by supporting the assessments and providing clear guidance on how to administer the tests within science-based safety protocols. As with reopening plans, this will require strong leadership to address concerns and support schools so principals and teachers can focus on student learning.

The Biden administration has also made reducing student debt a top priority to ease the burden on families. There is no question that the rising cost of college should be addressed, as student debt has doubled to $1.7 trillion in the past 10 years. But more should be done first to increase the opportunities available to students after graduation.

In 2019, 9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were disengaged, meaning they weren’t in school, the workforce, or the military. The figure increased to 16 percent for 25-to-34-year-olds. Forgiving student debt alone won’t address this problem, which requires the educational system to strengthen the pre-K-to-workforce pipeline.

More students must emerge prepared to enter the workforce, able to earn strong livelihoods. And we must eliminate the persistent achievement gaps that affect career pathways and income earnings long after graduation.

Strong educational leadership will be critical in these early days of the administration – and at this unique time in our history. Bold vision will be essential in charting the course of the next four years. I’m hopeful that Cardona can rise to the occasion and act to effectively support ALL our students – starting with getting them back on track with learning and instruction.