Public school teachers in Santa Fe returned to work Monday to begin learning how to lead lessons in virtual classrooms.
The district will roll out a mass distance learning program next week amid a statewide, three-week school shutdown that could be extended as New Mexico increases efforts to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
Nancy Matira, a spokeswoman for the state Public Education Department, said Monday it remains unclear whether schools will reopen April 6 as initially planned when the shutdown began last week.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also indicated Monday, during a news conference on more stringent restrictions on business operations and gatherings, that the public school closure was likely to last beyond April 6.
While school districts can remain closed until that date, staff at Santa Fe Public Schools are preparing to move forward with the launch Monday of a distance learning effort. Some of the details were still unclear as teachers began training this week on an online platform they will use to deliver lessons to students, who will all have district-issued laptops and tablet computers to use at home.
Superintendent Veronica García said officials haven’t yet determined a schedule for the distance learning program. But, she said, the hours won’t correspond with traditional classroom time.
“We are looking at a program where students might get instruction for half an hour in the morning, do an assignment and then come back,” García said. “This is going to be all new for us, and we will see what works.
“We’re not set up necessarily to be an online school district,” she added. “We’ve never put 13,000 kids online at once.”
All students in grades 7-12 already have take-home laptops. Many students in kindergarten through sixth grade also have laptops or tablets. The district is planning to distribute around 1,300 more devices Wednesday to those who did not take one home before spring break.
Tom Ryan, Santa Fe Public Schools’ chief information and strategy officer, said the district also will provide ways for students to access the internet if they don’t have Wi-Fi at home.
He estimated around 10 percent of students don’t have internet access. The district will provide them with Wi-Fi hotspot devices. It also will provide internet access in school parking lots, public libraries and community centers.
Education advocates and organizations in the city are working to ensure students learning from home in isolation have other resources as well during the school shutdown — from food to art supplies to social and emotional support.
Cars were lined up Monday at Kearny Elementary School to pick up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with colored pencils and paint, as part of Santa Fe Public Schools’ drive-thru service for meals and school supplies.
As the coronavirus crisis takes a toll on families, “home might not be a peaceful place,” said special-education teacher Jennifer St. Claire as she handed out art supplies. “Creativity and self-expression and art are really important outlets for escape right now.”
St. Claire and Grace Mayer, president of the National Education Association-Santa Fe, distributed more than 100 bags of art supplies Monday that had been donated by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Mayer said the teachers union has spoken with other local museums and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden about helping to supplement the district’s distance learning curriculum with hands-on materials that fit in a tote bag.
“I’m a big believer in hands-on,” said Mayer, an art teacher at Milagro Middle School. “It’s a way to get kids engaged at their level. They can just dive into the activity without needing a parent to help them with the technology.”
Some students at Monday’s drive-thru event said they already miss their school-day routines.
“I want to go back to school so bad. I miss using my brain a little bit more,” said Loren Bachicha, an eighth grader at El Dorado Community School. She plays violin in the school’s orchestra. “I can play on my own, but you sort of need to listen to the whole ensemble,” she said.
“It’s just going to be such a different experience,” she added. “I’m not used to online school.”
The nonprofit Communities In Schools, which aids some of the district’s lowest-income students, is preparing to bring food and academic support directly to families. In addition to meal deliveries to mobile home parks and apartment complexes with high numbers of families in need, the organization is training a network of 80 volunteer tutors who will connect with students online, Executive Director Julia Bergen said. The nonprofit’s staff will start calling families Tuesday to check in with them about their needs.
“The situation calls for creativity,” Bergen said. “… So many of our families live on such limited income, so I’m worried that a lot of families are about to be destabilized.”
In the past week, Communities In Schools has raised over $43,000 for an emergency fund for families in need of temporary housing, utilities and other immediate aid. In a typical week, the organization receives five requests for help, Bergen said. She expects that number to spike.
Pete Gurulé, a parent of two preschool students who showed up at Kearny on Monday, understands that. He’s suddenly out of work.
“We are self-employed parents who own a massage clinic in town. Because we went from a very high-volume and growing business to zero overnight, we’re having to come out and get free lunches from the community,” he said. “That’s a huge shift for us.”
Luckily, Gurulé said, their landlord put rent payments on hold. “I know not every landlord is that nice. I can’t imagine what some parents are going through.”