SAN JUAN — U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Rio Grande Valley students and educators Wednesday afternoon in a quick-paced tour of Hidalgo County.

The secretary, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, walked through Achieve Early College High School in San Juan before participating in a forum with students from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in McAllen.

Cardona was in town, in part, as an ambassador for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, part of which aims at providing students with a pathway to higher education and two years of community college for students.

Greeted in Pharr by mariachi music and a column of JROTC students, Cardona seemed impressed.

“You know, we’re talking about Building Back Better,” he said after his tour. “If we could put in a bottle what we saw here — we saw students graduating with an associates degree. We saw students in leadership roles giving us tours. We saw students that have internship students out in the community. We saw students learning geometry in two different languages.”

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Superintendent Jorge Arredondo said he thought the school district’s reopening guidelines drew the secretary to touring the district, calling his visit valuable and “super supportive.”

“We’re being better here, we’re continuing to inspire our students to continue to learn and bring that multi-generational prosperity that we want for all our students,” Arredondo said. “So he was very interested in seeing the success that we’ve been having. All the efforts that have been made in different departments, to improve the safety of campuses, including the contact tracing, the testing that’s done here weekly at PSJA, as well as all the efforts that we’ve done to provide the vaccine to our community.”

Cardona stepped into three classrooms, briefly chatting with teachers and their students, and handing out milk chocolate medallions. He was particularly interested in a bilingual geometry class, asking the class instructor about certifications for teaching the course and students about how it benefited them.

The secretary briefly joked and chatted with students. The kids didn’t seem to know what to make of him at first, but a couple of quips in Spanish broke the ice and the classroom warmed up.

“Being bilingual’s a plus — I always say it’s your superpower, being bilingual, bicultural,” Cardona said. “So I’m not gonna keep you away from your math, cause they might give you more homework on isosceles in Spanish.”

Conflicting state and local guidelines on mask mandates have caused friction in Hidalgo County school districts and districts across the state.

Last month Weslaco ISD dropped its mask requirement — contradicting a county mandate — based on guidance from the Texas Education Agency.

In August, a man was arrested for disorderly conduct after delivering an anti-mask tirade to an Edinburg school board that ended in a string of curses.

Asked about federal guidance on masks, Cardona said the administration would continue supporting masks, but didn’t mention any concrete enforcement mechanisms.

“I visited over 18 states, and masks are not an issue for students,” he said. “They’re an issue for the adults. We’re gonna follow the science 100% of the time so we can ensure that students have what we saw here today: in-person learning full-time. The science is pretty clear on it.”

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Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the location of the high school event.

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Photo Gallery: U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits PSJA High