Santa Fe Public Schools has received more than 300 requests from teachers and staff to either continue working remotely or alter job assignments as the district prepares to reopen schools in a hybrid model next month.
Superintendent Veronica García said 304 district employees have made requests as the district prepares for a scheduled Oct. 15 date to allow elementary school students back into the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Teachers made up 167 of those requests, with 139 approved and 28 pending, she said.
Spokesman Cody Dynarski said the district employs about 1,900 full-time workers.
While the district is working toward meeting those requests, the superintendent said she is unsure how they will affect in-person instruction because administrators are still working on details.
García said a requirement by the state’s Public Education Department that individual classes be limited to 50 percent of its student roster instead of 50 percent of a room’s capacity makes staffing classes even more challenging.
“Let’s say a teacher could not teach because of needing an in-person accommodation and there were maybe five kids who needed to go into another classroom,” García said. “I might be able to accommodate [the students] with 50 percent capacity, but not at 50 percent of a roster.”
Public Education Department spokeswoman Deborah Martinez wrote in an email that the roster mandate complies with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health order. Separating classes into two groups is a recommended strategy for preventing the spread of COVID-19, Martinez wrote, and the department is not ready to relax the requirement.
“Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our communities as we embark on the hybrid model of instruction,” Martinez wrote.
Accommodating staff members has been easier, García said, by simply altering their duties to prevent or limit interaction with students.
García said she anticipates having a preliminary reopening plan in place for the school board’s Sept. 24 study session or for an Oct. 1 board meeting.
Another issue the district faces is the percentage of teachers over the age of 60, a group that numerous studies have shown are at a higher risk of suffering complications from a COVID-19 infection. According to the district, 150 teachers are in that demographic, about 17 percent of its teachers.
Grace Mayer, president of NEA-Santa Fe, the union that represents most teachers in the district, said teachers’ safety is of the utmost importance, especially given how much work they are doing even in the virtual teaching model.
Mayer said many teachers are putting in double the work to ensure students are getting a quality education.
“This idea that we want to work from home, this is harder to do than if we were in person,” Mayer said.
Teachers amplified that point and also expressed their concerns about the district’s reopening plans at Thursday’s school board meeting. The majority of the 47 people who signed up to speak during the public comment period worked in the district.
They conveyed worries about schools becoming “super spreaders” of the virus, poor ventilation systems at some schools, sanitization of classrooms during school days, students not following social-distancing and mask-wearing edicts, as well as the hybrid model being worse for students than virtual learning.
Shari Cross, a teacher at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, said isolation rooms and nurses’ offices could be overrun with students who display symptoms. Cross also said teachers will take time off to ensure they do not contract the virus.
“You will have a constant rotation of teachers out sick over allergies due to concerns that it could be COVID,” Cross wrote in an email that district officials read aloud during Thursday’s meeting. “This will be a nightmare, I promise you that.”
Jennifer Warren, a first grade teacher at Nina Otero Community School, said her classroom size could only hold six students at most and suggested that she would have to have four classes of five students to provide the hybrid instruction.
“Is it truly worth risking everyone’s health and safety to be able to send one child to school one day a week?” Warren wrote.
García said the district has worked diligently on employee safety. It has accumulated masks for distribution, as well as building Plexiglas barriers to separate staff and students at all schools and even on buses. She stressed it is important for the district to abide by the state’s requirements to avoid liability issues.
“I cannot put the district in any kind of jeopardy by coming up with a workaround [for the guidelines],” she said.