The New Mexico Public Education Department on Tuesday announced a plan for K-12 students to return to school in August with a combination of in-person and online classes.
The guidelines for reopening call for schools to screen staff members for symptoms and check their temperatures daily while limiting attendance to 50 percent of a school’s capacity. Students and staff will have to wear masks in schools and on buses except while eating, drinking and exercising, with some medical exceptions, and a maximum of two students may sit together on a bus seat at a time.
Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment said the department is recommending schools open to half their students on Mondays and Tuesdays and close for cleaning on Wednesdays before opening to the other half on Thursdays and Fridays.
The department also gave districts the option to consider other types of schedules, provided they follow health and safety protocols.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said her staff will spend the coming weeks surveying parents, and if enough want their students to continue learning from home exclusively, that could allow the district to welcome some students to campus four days a week.
Warniment and García said in terms of academic and social development, returning to campus is most important for elementary schools.
“We’re trying to advocate for the younger students. The students you want to prioritize are pre-K through third grade,” Warniment said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Those are the students who most need in-person attention.”
Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education President Kate Noble said a shortened school week will challenge working parents and strain an already-strapped child care system.
“It has to be an exercise in prioritization. Obviously, health and safety of our kids and teachers comes first,” said Noble, a vice president at United Way of Santa Fe County, which focuses on early childhood education and care. “But when there is a mismatch between what is being required by workplaces and what schools are offering, that elevates the importance of the child care industry, which is already facing reduced capacity and its own group-size limitations.”
Annjenette Torres, the Parent Teacher Organization president at Milagro Middle School, said while the recommended schedule makes sense given the circumstances, she isn’t convinced the shortened school week will be conducive to learning.
“It’s kind of choppy, this idea of half the kids half the week, and then the other half the other half of the week,” Torres said. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable with all the different learning styles kids have. Scheduling is one thing, but teaching and learning is another.”
The Public Education Department’s guidelines for reopening say the state Department of Health will regularly assess rates of the spread of COVID-19 in order to determine if a school district needs to revert to 100 percent distance learning or if it can safely reopen to all students.
National Education Association-New Mexico President Mary Parr-Sanchez said she believes while most of the state’s teachers are willing to return to campus, there are plenty who will only be willing to work from home due to elevated health risks. Warniment said the Public Education Department will be flexible in allowing at-risk school staff to work remotely.
“We’re going to have waivers in place for high-risk educators who need to work from home,” Warniment said. “And we’re going to move aggressively for virtual training for educators.”
Superintendents and education leaders say while the responsibilities of schools and teachers have grown exponentially during the pandemic, funding basic infrastructure that will help schools deal with new realities has not.
Parr-Sanchez, who previously taught eighth grade in Las Cruces for 25 years, said a statewide survey of the union’s roughly 9,000 members found 50 percent of schools do not always have both running water and soap. According to a legislative analysis from 2019, 305 schools in New Mexico do not have a full-time registered nurse, and according to the National Education Association, there are 780 students for every school nurse in the state.
“Districts have been put in a no-win situation and, most importantly, so have kids,” Parr Sanchez said. “This is what always happens in New Mexico because we don’t fund our schools properly. This time is different because it’s more high stakes. It’s a life-and-death situation.”
While the federal coronavirus relief act provided funding for schools to purchase technology, personal protective equipment and other necessities for continuing education during the pandemic, the state has not allowed school districts to keep their full allotment. Parr-Sanchez said Las Cruces Public Schools received $7.4 million from the federal stimulus before the state trimmed $3 million from its budget.
García said Santa Fe Public Schools received around $2.5 million from the CARES Act but lost $1 million in state funding as a result. Kristy Janda Wagner, the district’s executive director of operations, told the school board last month the district expects to spend an additional $1.7 million on custodians in order to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for wiping down surfaces when schools reopen.
“That additional CARES Act funding was to help us cover this, and now I’m going to have $1 million less to fund these additional expense,” García said. “That sure puts us in a tight spot. We’re already experiencing other cuts. I am very concerned about where this leaves my budget.”