HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — News 8’s Chief Political Correspondent Jodi Latina was granted an exclusive sit-down interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona. Watch part one here

Cardona has spent two years dealing with a pandemic through the eyes of an educator. One of those years as the U.S. Secretary of Education. He will have a birds-eye view of President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address.

Cardona has returned to his home state of Connecticut several times, highlighting schools in Waterbury, Groton, Meriden, and Plainville.

Connecticut’s former education commissioner says the learning curve in his new role has been challenging but exciting.

“I think reopening schools is just the baseline,” Cardona said. “Now is when we really get to work around teaching and learning and improving outcomes for students.

School mask mandates have been dropped in most states, including Connecticut, and in-person learning is back at 99% nationwide.

Cardona says inequities have been a big part of education during COVID-19. He’s focused on addressing that.  

“So, we have to make sure that we’re raising the bar, so that all students not only come back but come back to a school that’s better than it was in March 2020,” Cardona said.

Part of that includes re-imagining high schools.

“To allow for better access to career and college pathways,” Cardona said. “Connecting the dots between pre-K-12 systems, two-year schools, four-year schools, and our workforce partners…that has to evolve quicker.”

His vision in a post-COVID classroom also includes:

  • helping students make up for lost instructional time;
  • expanding access to mental health services;
  • investing in our educators;
  • improving education system to address inequities;
  • making postsecondary education more affordable; and
  • holding colleges and universities accountable for reportedly taking advantage of borrowers.

“The system is broken,” Cardona said. “We have to fix it. We’ve taken steps with Public Service Loan Forgiveness. We provided over $16 billion in loan relief and in less than a year.”

News 8’s Chief Political Correspondent Jodi Latina asked Cardona about his recollection of the state’s Office of School Construction when he was the state Commissioner of Education. Recent reports surrounding a federal grand jury investigation focus on that office, suggesting districts were being “pushed” to hire specific companies off an emergency bid list for million-dollar renovation projects.

News 8’s Chief Political Correspondent Jodi Latina: “Do you ever remember any rumblings at all in any districts about any discrepancies over being forced to hire consultants?”

U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona: “No, I’ve never heard any concerns about that. And while I can’t speak to that specifically, I know how important it, especially with the American Rescue Plan, that as we’re making sure our schools are safe, we make sure we improve ventilation systems, we improve the infrastructure of the schools, so that our students and staff can have an environment that’s safe.”

Cardona also has his eyes on international students studying in the U.S., especially those from Ukraine — a topic expected in the president’s big speech.

“I know the president is going to focus part of the comments on what’s happening in Ukraine and making sure that he shares what our country’s position is around making sure democracy prevails across the world,” Cardona said. “But also, you know, what we’re doing here in our country.”

This is the first State of the Union address Cardona has ever attended.

“It is an exciting opportunity for me to get in there and listen,” he said. “I’ve always watched it, so, to be there in person is pretty special.”

Because of ongoing COVID-19 protocols, Cardona will not be allowed a guest at Tuesday’s speech in Washington, D.C., but he will be in the room, grateful to have a seat.