As the Public Education Department and school districts across New Mexico have scrambled to respond to a health crisis that turned the spring semester upside down, forced budget cuts and continues to throw campus reopening plans in limbo, the state’s top education official has been leading from afar.
Cabinet Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a phone interview Monday he has been in Philadelphia for most of the last four months with his wife and son.
The Public Education Department has had some top-level turnover in recent weeks: Both Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff and communications director Nancy Martira resigned this month.
Stewart doesn’t see his location as an obstacle. “I can assure all New Mexicans there is not substantive difference in my ability to perform this job,” he said.
He’s been on the job for less than a year. Stewart lived in Philadelphia before he was hired to lead the Public Education Department in August 2019. His wife and son had planned to move to New Mexico to be with him, he said, but that was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He remained in Santa Fe for a few weeks in March after the pandemic forced school closures and disrupted in-person learning. Then he returned to Philadelphia, Stewart said.
He returned to Santa Fe for the five-day special legislative session in June, when lawmakers responded to a massive budget shortfall from the economic effects of the pandemic.
He’s been back in Philadelphia since the session ended, Stewart said, but he plans to return to New Mexico in early August. He will quarantine for two weeks and be ready to visit schools if they reopen.
“My work really doesn’t stop,” Stewart said. “It just starts a couple hours earlier. The only difference is which room I happen to be sitting in for Zoom calls all day — my living room here or in my apartment in Santa Fe.”
He spoke with Gov. Lujan Grisham about his desire to work out of state, he added.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email, “Working out of state is permitted, but it’s not necessarily something we encourage” on a long-term basis.
“If we hired someone from Alaska, say, we wouldn’t say, ‘OK, you can go ahead and work for the state from Alaska indefinitely.’ We would want that person to move here and quarantine and begin work as soon as it’s safe to do so,” he said.
However, Stelnicki said Lujan Grisham has not held in-person meetings in months, even with Cabinet secretaries, except for her nearly weekly virtual news conferences, which are livestreamed on Facebook. Those events are limited to three people or fewer, who all are screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before coming in close contact, Stelnicki said.
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said she had not noticed Stewart was working from out of state.
“I hadn’t noticed anything of concern,” she said. “If the secretary hadn’t shared he was working from Philadelphia, I would have no way of knowing if he was in his office on Don Gaspar, his home in Santa Fe or in Philadelphia. The Public Education Department’s communication and responsiveness have been excellent.”
Santa Fe Public Schools was one of several districts in the state that announced last week it would start classes remotely next month due to surging numbers of cases of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Most districts and charter schools have submitted contingency plans for how they will safely and effectively provide three types of education as the pandemic continues: a completely remote model, a full return to classrooms and a hybrid model that combines distance learning with in-person classes.
Stewart said many of the state’s roughly 89 school districts and 100 charter schools are planning to start the new year with a hybrid model of learning — unless the governor orders campuses to remain closed.
“For educators this year, we’re going into something that is completely unprecedented, so we’re going to have to be flexible to move across those reentry models, given what happens with the virus and whether or not there is an outbreak,” Stewart said.
“The expectation is that plenty — maybe not quite most, but plenty — of districts will come back in the hybrid model next month,” he added.