Cardona, 45, a former public school teacher who went on to become Connecticut’s education chief, was approved on a 64-33 vote.
He takes charge of the Education Department amid mounting tension between Americans who believe students can safely return to the classroom now, and others who say the risks are still too great.
Although his position carries limited authority to force schools to reopen, Cardona will be asked to play a central role in achieving Biden’s goal to have a majority of elementary schools open five days a week within his first 100 days. He will be tasked with guiding schools through the reopening process, and sharing best practices on how to teach during a pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released a road map for getting students back into classrooms safely. The agency said masks, social distancing and other strategies should be used, but vaccination of teachers was not a prerequisite for reopening.
Cardona, who gained attention for his efforts to reopen schools in Connecticut, has vowed to make it his top priority to reopen schools. At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, he said there are “great examples throughout our country of schools that have been able to reopen safely.”
The debate has become a political firestorm for Biden, who is caught between competing interests as he aims to get students into the classroom without provoking the powerful teachers unions that helped put him in the White House. He says his goal of returning students to the classroom is possible if Congress approves his relief plan, which includes $130 billion for the nation’s schools.
Republicans have rebuked Biden for failing to reopen schools faster, while teachers unions opposed the administration’s decision to continue with federally required standardized tests during the pandemic.