PLAINVILLE, Conn. (WTNH) — News 8’s Chief Political Correspondent Jodi Latina was granted an exclusive sit-down with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

The Meriden native made a special visit to Linden Street School in Plainville on Monday, where he was met with open arms. The statewide school mask mandate expires Monday and Plainville has made masks optional.

Socially distanced, Cardona unmasked to discuss what a COVID recovery in education looks like and his first year in the Biden administration.

As his one-year anniversary in that role approaches, Cardona was asked what the transition has been like.

“There’s a lot that has happened this first year. We walked in, only 47% of our schools were open full time. We knew the challenges. We knew that there were folks that were divided about how we move forward,” Cardona said.

Cardona, one of the leading advocates of in-school learning, pushed to keep classrooms open despite pandemic fears, especially for students in cities where the education learning gap remains an issue.

99% of schools around the country are open one year later, Cardona said.

“We still have a lot of work to do. But the most important thing was making sure that our students had access to in-person learning, and we did that.”

A former educator, Cardona acknowledged there is a massive learning loss with students who learned remotely. He acknowledged blended learning can include remote access, but it should not be the default.

“We have better tools now. So moving forward, they should always be open. What they missed, not only academically but socially too. A lot of students were unfortunately not able to be with their peers, not able to see their teachers in person, and schools are communities, schools are like second families. So getting them back, it’s really important that we engage them,” Cardona said.

Part of engaging them in the recovery after COVID involves music.

Cardona and his wife were treated to the sounds of the Plainville High School Jazz Ensemble.

“I always said, this country we went through a lot together and we need to heal together. I really feel like music is that agent to help us heal quicker,” Cardona said.

That message resonated with students.

“You know, I don’t really pay too much attention to the outside when I’m locked into my music. But it was a really nice experience to be able to play for all of you here,” said Jaylen Thigpen, a junior from Plainville High School’s Class of 2023 who plays the trumpet.

“To be able to have this opportunity to kind of show our talent and get back out there is a really wonderful thing to be able to do,” said guitarist Claudia Mizerek, a junior.

Cardona said he is proud of the progress around the nation. Initial pushback has turned 180 degrees to where mask options can now be discussed.

“Connecticut, as always, has really led the pack. I do feel we’re at the point now across the country where we can give that option to families.”

Cardona went on to say: “But I think we must also be mindful of the fact that it’s not over.”

His own children are boosted and will be taking precautions to attend an upcoming band trip.

“That’s living with it, right? That’s not waiting for it to finish, that’s living with it, and I think we have to do that as a country,” Cardona said.

He added it is harder to re-open and get everybody on the same page than it is to shut down when things are bad.

Cardona will be celebrating his one-year anniversary of being sworn in as Education Secretary on Wednesday.

What’s the Secretary’s vision for the nation’s education system moving forward? What are the Secretary’s thoughts on the embattled state’s school construction office? News 8’s Jodi Latina will share part two of her exclusive sit down with Secretary Cardona Tuesday on News 8.