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U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, in an "Axios on HBO" interview, said he's reluctant to withhold federal funding from states that won't enforce school mask mandates because he doesn't want to hurt students.

Why it matters: Cardona's comments suggest there are limits to how far the Biden administration will go in pressuring states to adopt universal masking — or vaccine mandates.

  • California became the first state to say vaccines will be required for in-person learning after shots for K-12 age groups are approved.
  • Cardona also said he's looking to President Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda, and the Democrats' push for about $2 trillion in new social spending, as ways to improve the U.S. return on investment in education compared with other nations.

Driving the news: The administration has recommended universal masking in schools. But more than 30 governors have refused to implement such mandates — and some have gone so far as to ban them.

  • The administration has threatened legal action against seven states but the strategy has yielded no tangible results, so far.

What they're saying: "I don't know that holding funds from students is the best approach," Cardona told "Axios on HBO" when asked about enforcing mask mandates. "Ultimately, the students need more support, not less."

  • "But we're working with our districts. And, thankfully, the superintendents, who are educators, are working closely with health experts to keep their children safe."

Infection rates in children have surpassed those of adults nationwide, as more adults get vaccinated and children return to the crowds in classrooms.

  • Children, however, are statistically far less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19.
  • But of more than 6 million children who have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic, about 1 million of them had tested positive just since September.

What we're watching: Since the Trump administration, data shows a jump in parents taking their children out of traditional public schools.

  • There are a variety of factors, from varying uses of remote and in-person learning to mask and other mandates.
  • Enrollment in traditional public schools decreased by more than 1 million students in the 2020-21 school year, a 3% drop. Enrollment in public charter schools increased by 7% in the same period, and more parents chose options including private schools and home-schooling.

Cardona cited a combination of factors.

  • "In many cases, there was so much fear of sending students back to school, or parents maybe were dealing with different issues at home and it impacted their ability to send their children to their traditional school," he said.
  • "But I'm completely confident that, based on what we've seen from our educators over the last year and a half, we're going to continue to put the students first and we're going to reopen schools that welcome students and meet ... not only the students' needs but the families' needs and concerns."

What's next: Cardona said more investment in early education is key to getting better outcomes, citing proposals in the Democrats' agenda such as funding universal pre-K. They also include spending for college assistance and infrastructure.

  • The U.S. is fifth in education expenditure per student among the highly developed OECD countries but ranks 31st in mathematics performance among 15-year-olds.

Biden originally was seeking $3.5 trillion in social spending but now says the number likely must come down to around $2 trillion to secure enough support to pass.

  • Asked which education items he's recommended be scrapped first, the secretary refused to prioritize among them.
  • "You're asking me, 'Which one do I recommend being cut?'" Cardona said. "I don't recommend any of 'em being cut."
  • "For far too long, it's been predictable which students are going to be successful or not based on place and race," he said. "The education package is an honest approach to level the playing field and lift our country."

Go deeper

Updated Nov 27, 2021 - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.

Nov 27, 2021 - World

South Africa says it's being "punished" for detecting new COVID variant

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly on September 22, 2021 in New York City. Photo: Eduardo Munoz - Pool/Getty Images)

South Africa said Saturday it's being "punished" for detecting the new Omicron coronavirus variant as more countries rush to enact travel bans and restrictions.

Driving the news: The U.S. imposed air travel restrictions from eight countries Friday in response to the Omicron variant. Countries in Europe and Asia have also implemented their own travel restrictions in response to Omicron.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Nov 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Why more Americans are going childless

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Pew survey late last week found that 44% of Americans between 18 and 49 who aren't parents say it is not too likely or not at all likely that they will have children — an increase of 7 percentage points from 2018.

Why it matters: The shift could lead to smaller family Thanksgiving dinners and major social and economic changes, as children become rarer in many parts of the country and more American adults reach old age with little to no family to support them.