Despite the spread of the more contagious delta variant, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said he’s optimistic about classes resuming this fall. During a visit to a Bronx school Tuesday, he said he believes schools nationally can reopen safely, and he’s especially confident in the precautions in place at the city’s public schools. He said he backs Mayor de Blasio’s decision to forgo a remote option in favor of a full return to in-person classes on September 13th.

“We’re going to get back to in-person learning,” Cardona said. “I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic. If the adults do their job, we'll be fine... We're always going to be monitoring changes in delta and we're willing to move if we need to move. But right now we can safely return our students to school.”

Cardona added that educators will have to be “nimble” to respond to changes in the health context. Earlier in the day, on NBC’s Today Show, Cardona offered a more cautious assessment: “School reopening will depend on community spread. Let’s be very clear. If the community spread is high, it is going to impact whether or not the schools can be open.”

Already, some southern states with relatively low vaccination rates and mask mandate bans have had to close schools. Thousands of students in Texas, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, among others, had to quarantine just days or weeks after reopening.

Given that backdrop, some New York City public school parents have been lobbying fiercely for a remote option, especially for medically vulnerable students. The city has promised home instruction for eligible students with health conditions. Several thousand teachers and parents have signed a petition calling for a remote option and tighter safety measures, including a vaccine mandate for everyone over 12 and guaranteed social distancing of three feet — something some principals have said their schools can’t manage.

But during Tuesday’s school visit, Cardona and New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter insisted in-person learning is best for students and said New York City’s schools have set a “gold standard” for safety. They added that — with stringent mask requirements and other precautions — schools can protect students from the variant.

Porter noted that schools proved to be very safe last year, and now there is an added layer of protection. “We have a strategy we didn't have a year ago,” Porter said. “We have a vaccination, and that allows us to wrap a bubble of safety around our students and around our schools.” The city has been operating vaccine pop-up sites at summer schools and sports pre-season practices.

At PS/MS 5 in Port Morris, Cardona joined Porter and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to tour its Summer Rising summer school program, spotlight efforts to emotionally support students, and ramp up enthusiasm for the new school year.

The students have been studying heroes, including illustrating portraits of their moms, friends, firefighters, and doctors.

Cardona said the students are his heroes. “Now you are the heroes who are inspiring us,” he said. “You’ve put up with a lot, and now it’s time to get back to school.”

The kids also made posters to welcome other students back to school on September 13th.

“Some kids don’t feel comfortable going to school or they get nervous,” said Laila Edwards, 10. “We want them to feel like it’s ok to go back to school and it’s ok to be nervous.”

“We want to make it a big thing that we’re going back to school,” said Nathaniel George, also 10.

The city has been doing outreach to hesitant families, with administrators offering tours of buildings so parents can see the safety measures in place, and a door knocking campaign from the teachers union.

Porter said including students as ambassadors in the effort is key.

“This is so important because we want them to be part of our homecoming,” she said. “They talk about how excited they are coming back to school. They’re working together, forming partnerships … building our school community back.”