(WASHINGTON) -- Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he's in touch with superintendents who are actively defying Florida and Texas governors' orders not to mandate masks in schools and will have their back should they lose state funding.
"I have had conversations with superintendents and they have asked if this goes in that direction, how do we get support? My message is, open the schools safely. We got your back," Cardona told ABC News in an exclusive interview Tuesday after touring P.S. 5 Port Morris, a public school in the Bronx.
Last week, Cardona sent a letter to superintendents in Florida reassuring them that if Gov. Ron DeSantis followed through on a threat to withhold salaries from schools that imposed mask mandates, federal funding could make up the difference. The Republican governor has banned mask mandates in the state of Florida -- which has the highest case rate in the nation -- an order that goes against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest guidance for all students and school faculty to wear masks in the classroom this fall because of the heightened spread of the delta variant.
Cardona also expressed hope that schools will stay in session this year.
"I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic -- and if the adults do their job, our kids will be fine," Cardona said.
"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 if we follow the mitigation strategies, get vaccinated when you can," he added.
But states have diverged over what that "job" is along political lines, with many Republican-led states choosing to leave the decision on masks up to students and parents rather than follow CDC guidelines.
Eight states have banned schools from requiring masks for students -- Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. But Texas and Arkansas have some of the highest case rates in the nation behind Florida.
Like Florida, some Texas school districts have gone against the ban on mask mandates.
But outbreaks have already been reported in districts that have returned to school, particularly in schools that aren't requiring masks. Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes the city of Tampa, Florida, announced Monday that 5,599 students and 316 school employees are currently either in isolation or quarantine after COVID exposure at school. The school board intends to discuss implementing mandatory mask mandates at the next board meeting, officials said.
The return to school nationwide is also coinciding with a surge in cases among young people, who make up a large portion of the unvaccinated in the United States. More than 121,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported among kids last week, another "substantial" increase from weeks prior, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association said in a report Monday.
Pediatric coronavirus-related hospital admissions now equal the most seen at any point of the pandemic.
Severe illness due to COVID-19 remains "uncommon" among children, the two organizations wrote in the report, but they warned that there is an urgent need to collect more data on long-term impacts, "including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects."
The rise in cases has fueled concerns that students will not be able to stay in school without frequent COVID scares sending them back to remote learning.
"Delta is different, so we must pay attention to transmission rates, to what we're learning about the delta variant, and we as educators have to be nimble to make sure we're addressing what we're learning from our health experts," Cardona said. "Again, it's really important that we work in tandem with our health experts to make sure we have a safe school reopening."
But Cardona stressed that students should not fall back into remote-learning options because the benefits of the classroom still outweigh the risks.
"Students learn best in the classroom. We know that. And we have to give them an opportunity to get into the classroom to build relationships," Cardona said.
Asked if the CDC should tailor guidelines for schools with lower vaccination rates, Cardona said he's confident those rates will rise once children return to the classroom because of the effort to reach kids in one place -- education and pop-up clinics targeting kids at school.
"I'm really confident that when school gets started, and our communities come back, they're gonna look to the schools to be a place where they can get vaccinated," he said.