BALTIMORE (WJZ) — United States’ Education Secretary Miguel Cardona got a warm welcome at Baltimore City’s Graceland Park O’Donnell Heights Elementary-Middle School. It was part of his ‘Return To School Roadmap’ that has Cardona visiting classrooms nationwide.

He called for students to return to in-person instruction.

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Cardona spoke one-on-one with WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren. “Last year was the most difficult year. This is the most important year. Get your kids to school, vaccinate them when you can,” Cardona told Hellgren.

Those younger than 12 are still not eligible for the Covid vaccines but Maryland has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates among people ages 12 to 18.

Secretary Cardona said he wants some federal funding to be used for vaccination clinics in schools.

“I’ve seen examples of that where it works. Sometimes, they feel more comfortable doing it in a school that they are comfortable with and a school that they know,” he told Hellgren.

Cardona did not give a definitive answer when Hellgren asked him about whether vaccinations should be mandated for teachers and other support staff. How to track staff vaccinations is an issue many school districts have yet to decide.

Baltimore County school officials said this week it will likely be up to teachers to self-report vaccination status but they are still working out details.

“My recommendation for all educators across the country is to get vaccinated as soon as you’re able to get vaccinated. Do your part to make sure that we can recover from this pandemic,“ he told Hellgren.

It comes as the Delta variant is leading to a surge in cases nationwide. Maryland reported its highest single-day number of new infections in weeks Wednesday.

Secretary Cardona said he does advocate wearing masks in classrooms.

“The pandemic across the country really has impacted families, students educators. My concern is the social and emotional well-being of our students,” Cardona said.

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You can read Secretary Cardona’s remarks to the school here.

He toured one of Baltimore City’s newest schools along with Mayor Brandon Scott.

Classrooms were filled with students for a summer enrichment program. Plastic dividers had been placed around each desk as one of the pandemic safety precautions.

Rachel Arana is an eighth-grader at Graceland Park. She told Hellgren she does not mind wearing a mask as long as she gets to be back in the classroom with her friends.

“I’m really excited to come back. I love being at school. I’m kind of a nerd. I love school, and I love how welcome they make me feel in here,” Arana said. “…I think it helps me a lot also with my mental health because I deal with a lot of stuff like anxiety. …I don’t get distracted and I’m learning. They help me build my skills and everything.”

Baltimore City requires facial coverings for all students, staff and visitors. Anne Arundel County became the latest central Maryland district to require masks. The superintendent there announced his decision Wednesday.

While in Baltimore, Secretary Cardona met Andrea, a student he said spoke little English and was frustrated learning at home. He said she blossomed with in-person instruction and is an example of the need to get off Zoom and get back into the classroom.

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“When she first started, she cried every day. But because of the relationships she was able to develop through in-person learning—the support that she received from her caring teachers—and the partnership her parents and school forged for her success, she is happy now and thriving. This story shows what is possible in our schools,” Cardona said.

CBS Baltimore Staff