Students at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden had a special visit Wednesday from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and the new Education Secretary, Meriden-native Miguel Cardona.
This visit is a return to Cardona's roots -- both to his hometown and to where his education career started -- in a classroom in Meriden.
During his visit, Cardona said he expressed a desire to see schools reopened quickly and safely and the Biden administration's desire for teachers to get vaccinated quickly.
“Across the country, future Lin Manuel Mirandas are sitting home instead of going to the drama club. Future astronauts, like Mark Kelly, are sitting at home instead of going to a science lab to spark that wonder of science,” Cardona said.
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One class Biden met was Rachel Valentin's kindergarten class at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.
Her students were very excited and they were ready to show off everything they were doing.
But, Valentin admitted, she was nervous. You never know what a kindergartner is going to say.
Valentine said she and Cardona were hired the same year and she is very proud of him.
Cardona and Biden took time to speak with the students, ask what they are learning and take a look at their work.
"That is beautiful. It looks like a daffodil," Cardona said while looking at one student's artwork.
Cardona grew up in Meriden and after college, returned to the city to begin his career in education. He was a fourth-grade teacher before becoming the state's youngest-ever principal.
“It feels great to be home,” Cardona said Wednesday. “What an honor to be here with the first lady in my hometown.
"Today, the Silver City shines," Cardona added.
During the tour of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, Dr. Biden also saw a sensory room, which puts an emphasis on social and emotional learning, and provides yoga balls and more.
"One of the things that I was telling Dr. Biden is, for students that have disabilities, students that have sensory needs, having in-person option that's safe is critically important," Cardona said. "It's most important and this school provides that."
“This room is an extension of what kids have," Cardona said." Being at home and being on the computer doesn’t access."
Biden asked if students have had increased anxiety due to the pandemic, and she was told yes and that led to a discussion of the role schools have in safety and providing a sense of normalcy.
Before then-President-elect nominated him to be the U.S. Secretary of Education, Cardona was Connecticut's education commissioner and he was at the helm of the department when schools had to close last March due to the pandemic.
In an instant, teachers and families went from in-person learning to going fully remote and the disruption caused, especially for children with no access to a laptop or technology.
“As commissioner of education, I experienced first hand the disruption that communities and schools felt when the pandemic hit,” Cardona said.
He said he knows how critical it is for students to stay engaged in school.
“As your secretary of education I pledge to do everything I can to listen, to learn and to act in the best of students every single day,” Cardona said. “It’s important to safely reopen schools. It’s critical that we do it as safely as possible and as quickly as possible.”
He talked about the need to support students and said the American school system will return better.
“Teachers want to be back,” Biden said.
The first lady said they know we have to get back safely.
When schools had to close, teachers learned to teach virtually and get food to students who needed it.
“They have done amazing things,” Biden said.
Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni said he doesn’t know why Benjamin Franklin Elementary School was chosen, but he’s excited that Cardona and Biden will tour the school and hear about the district’s success.
“She’s going to come and see our schools, hear about some of the work we’ve done during COVID times and with mitigation strategies in place. We’re proud of our model here in Meriden. We’ve offered in-person learning since before Labor Day and have never had to close down a school and that’s because of our partnership with our teacher’s union, but also with our health officials here in the city,” Benigni said.
Cardona posted a video message to his official Twitter account Tuesday night, introducing himself to the nation,
"To America's students and parents, as secretary of education I'm always going to have your perspective at the table," he said. "I'm going to be listening. I want to do everything in my power to make sure that every decision that's made at the agency not only by me, but by everyone that we work with, is centered on what's best for you."
Carissa Ellison, of Meriden, works at the school and her three children attend. She said she's thrilled to be able to be at the school when Biden and Cardona visit.
“Super exciting. It’s so big for Meriden," Ellison said. “On social media, everybody was messaging and reaching out, excited, wondering how it’s going to be today.”
Dr. Biden and Dr. Cardona will also visit a school in Pennsylvania on Wednesday.