DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Georgia public schools received $4 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan to make improvements and implement measures to bring students and staff back inside the classroom for the upcoming school year.
The DeKalb County School District received $300 million of that money, spending it on upgraded ventilation, improved roofing, and new water fountains among other items.
The district's spending got the attention of Dr. Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Education Secretary under President Joe Biden. Cardona heralded the use of funds as being in line with the administration's priorities.
“The Rescue Plan funds are aimed at making sure schools are open for students full time every day," Cardona said. “I witnessed equity in action. We need examples like this to see how it is possible to improve air quality, improve the infrastructure of our schools. Our students deserve it. They’ve been waiting to come back.”
Cardona toured Kelley Lake Elementary in DeKalb County, noting the upgrades to its decades-old boiler room and newly-upgraded ventilation inside classrooms. Cardona noted the improvements would not only serve students an staff during the pandemic, but also in the long run. The new equipment would mitigate risks to kids with compromised immune systems.
RELATED: US coronavirus cases rising again
Cardona's visit comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks to mitigate a bad outbreak, especially with the Delta variant causing spikes across the state.
Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia), Congresswoman Nikema Williams (D-Georgia) and DeKalb County school officials joined Cardona during his visit, listening to parents and touting the benefits of the American Rescue Plan.
During a roundtable in the elementary school library, many parents said they would opt to keep their children in masks for the upcoming school year. Kids who are at least 12 years old are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Cardona said he supported school districts who chose to require masks if the data supported it, insisting masks and vaccinations were the immediate stopgaps during the pandemic.
“I want us to maintain the level of urgency we have right now," Cardona said. "Masks eventually will come off. Maybe I’m not saying they’re coming off this week, but they’ll eventually come off.”
Making up for a lack of social and emotional interaction, along with learning loss, also dominated the discussion among parents. DeKalb County students are set to start school in-person in less than two weeks.
"We saw the American Rescue Plan funds being used to make sure schools are safe for students and staff," Cardona said. "I saw a community that’s ready to welcome students, and I heard from parents who are confident in sending their children to school knowing they’ll be safe.”