Amanda Tafoya sees the finish line, but she intends to cross it from her home instead of with friends and classmates at Capital High School.
Tuesday is supposed to be the return of fully opened campuses at Santa Fe Public Schools, but Tafoya, a senior at Capital, doesn’t see the point in coming back for the last six weeks of high school. She said the routine she developed for the first two-plus years at the school was torn down, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that hit New Mexico last March. At this point, she said she’s better off finishing school at home.
“I don’t feel the point of going back for two months, especially when we’re on the downhill side of school,” Tafoya said. “Right now, it’s pretty much just review for finals and stuff. I don’t see the point in disrupting a schedule I set for myself.”
As many students come back to school Tuesday, seniors across the district face the same dilemma as Tafoya: Finish the year with their peers at school or just pass the time away at home?
While their answers to that question are simple, how they arrived at them varies.
Some students aligned with Tafoya’s point of view; others expressed concern about bringing the coronavirus home to families and loved ones.
For students who said they will return to school, they point to interacting with friends and teachers as a driving force in their decision. Capital’s Isaac Gonzales is among those who prefer face-to-face instruction, and he looks forward to being able to conduct some of the labs associated with the school’s medical science program in person.
“It’s more of a hands-on learning, and that’s why it benefits me to come back,” Gonzales said.
Cruz Martinez, a senior at Santa Fe High School, said he is returning to school but may change his mind if he feels it resembles the hybrid model that for the past six weeks had students learning online at on-campus internet hubs under teacher supervision.
“If it’s a teacher just watching us to make sure we’re doing our work, that’s one thing,” Martinez said. “If it’s actually a teacher teaching and everyone is in a classroom, that’s OK.”
The conflict seniors face is reflected in administrators’ uncertainty about how many seniors actually will return.
Santa Fe High Principal Carl Marano estimated about half the school’s 400 seniors will come back to campus, while Capital Principal Jaime Holladay anticipates about 150 of 375 at her school.
Overall, Santa Fe Public Schools reported 5,490 students throughout the district are expected to return to campus, basing the number on parent surveys sent out in March. At that time, 4,551 indicated they will remain in remote learning. Another 1,850 did not respond to the survey, and district Superintendent Veronica García said they are being treated as if those students will attend school.
García said she understands the trepidation and frustration seniors feel about coming back to school, but she asked them to withhold judgement until all teachers who have not received their second vaccine return by April 19. García added she does not expect as many teachers and staff members who received health-related or other accommodations to work remotely, and she estimates between 90 percent and 95 percent of teachers will return to school.
“It’s very much an individual decision [for students], and we are here to support them with whatever decision they make,” García said.
Seniors agree the coronavirus pandemic negatively affected their final year.
They feel deprived of the normal milestones other classes got to enjoy, whether it was the final first day of school, being with their friends, taking part in extracurricular activities or senior prom.
Diamond Segura, a Capital senior and a member of the dance team, said she was disappointed when the state spirit competition was canceled last year and did not expect to get that chance to compete as a senior.
Now that athletics and activities are allowed again, she finds herself appreciating the opportunity to participate.
“Before, I would complain a lot about being on the team, like, ‘I’m so tired,’ and things like that,” Segura said. “I really took that for granted.”
Marano said Santa Fe High is working with the state Public Education Department to set up an outdoor junior/senior prom in a safe manner. Holladay said Capital is looking at having a senior bonfire, holding a parade and other weekly activities to honor the Class of 2021 but is first seeking district approval — another concession to the pandemic.
“In prior years, we were like, ‘Yes, this is a fun event. We’re doing it,’” Holladay said. “Now, it’s ‘Let’s go through all the channels and make sure it is really safe and that we can do that.’ “
Students said they are grateful for schools reopening, but some felt the events of the past several weeks were rushed. The state in January announced all public schools could open in hybrid learning in February, and in March ruled they could fully open in April.
“I’m surprised we’re going back to school, to be honest with you,” Padilla said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen at all this year. Now it’s all of a sudden, this is happening.”
Remote learning has received mixed reviews from some seniors. Santa Fe High’s Maya Ellers said her study skills atrophied and she felt like she was learning less than she did before the pandemic.
Ellers added she is a visual learner and struggled to maintain her focus during classes.
“I enjoyed the online classes and a lighter schedule this year, because it freed up time to work on college applications and scholarships,” Ellers said. “I thought, overall, education was definitely lacking in online learning.”
Holladay countered that online learning was as rigorous as the in-person approach. She said teachers focused more on quality instruction versus teaching a wide variety of topics within a subject.
She added teachers provided more flexibility with due dates for assignments, but the amount of work students and teachers put into remote learning was demanding.
“The actual level of expectation for student learning and being critical thinkers and doing the work, that hasn’t diminished,” Holladay said. “The pandemic forced us to focus on what is most important to teach and made us focus on those core, critical standards. And that’s not a bad thing.”
For all the challenges seniors faced, many say they learned some important lessons. Martinez said he learned to be more accountable when it came to his schoolwork. Seeking help from a teacher was awkward for him, he said, but remote learning made it easier for him to speak up for himself.
“It is really easy to go with the flow and have a not-caring attitude and let things pile up,” Martinez said. “This has made me a lot more aware of what I need to do, my responsibilities. No excuses — you got to get it done for yourself.”
Tafoya said she feels students in general learned how to adapt to changing circumstances, which will help them in their adult lives.
“We didn’t have a choice in this matter,” Tafoya said. “We had to change, but we were able to do it.”
When the district announced it would have traditional in-person graduations in late May, depending upon public health orders, seniors rejoiced at the news.
“This is something I’ve looked forward to since my freshman year,” Ellers said. “I felt relieved because it was up in the air for so long, and it’s a really important ceremony for people — for students, for families and friends.”
Holladay said she and her staff talked to seniors about making some changes to the ceremony, even adding some elements of last year’s remote festivities. The seniors wanted nothing to do with them.
“We talked about having the speeches recorded so they don’t have to sit and listen to them,” Holladay said. “But the kids, so far, they want the traditional experience. I was like, ‘You say you do now ...’ ”
For a group of teenagers who have endured nothing but change over the past year, they’ll gladly take tradition where they can find it.