Teachers and staff in Santa Fe Public Schools will be required to return to campus once they receive the COVID-19 vaccine, under an agreement announced Thursday.
The district and the National Education Association-Santa Fe teachers union announced the agreement as pressure from parents to get more students into the classroom continues to build.
Superintendent Veronica García said in an interview the memorandum of understanding between the district and the union, which both sides agreed to in February, also includes teachers who had an opportunity to get a vaccine but declined. Those in that category must return to the classroom, she said.
The district opened all of its schools Feb. 22 to hybrid learning, in which students receive at least two days of on-campus instruction per week with three days of remote learning. At the time, just 290 of 1,087 teachers and support staff members volunteered to report to campuses. García said 13 teachers and staff members returned to school this week.
The district did not require all teachers and staff members to return, instead arranging with union leaders to seek “volunteers” to help with hybrid learning.
The district had enough volunteers to bring 1,776 of its 12,500 students back to school, with another 1,990 on a waiting list.
García said the district wants to make it clear teachers are committed to returning to school so students can do the same.
“We want to reiterate that to everybody because there is a lot of confusion out there and a lot parents are mad because children aren’t back in school, and I totally understand that,” García said.
In a news release Thursday, the district said no employee is required to get a vaccination, but only teachers and staff members with an accommodation to work from home will not be required to return to in-person teaching during the 2020-21 school year. García said about 300 people have an accommodation.
Grace Mayer, president of NEA-Santa Fe, said the union has been adamant that teachers and support staff members want to return to campus, but having the ability to be vaccinated was equally important. Mayer said she and García worked together to write letters to state leaders emphasizing educators needed to be near the front of the vaccination line because of their role as educators.
Their pleas received a boost when President Joe Biden announced Tuesday he intends to use the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to fast-track vaccines for educators, with the goal of inoculating all by the end of the month.
“Hopefully, with more vaccines available, teachers and educators will get vaccinated, and be coming back after that,” Mayer said.
García and Mayer said a Thursday news release about the agreement was intended to address rumors they heard from some parents that teachers would not return to the classroom until students were vaccinated.
“We are eager to get back into the classroom,” Mayer said. “But we’re also eager to get vaccinated and move past some of this and get back to a more integrated kind of community. It just takes time.”
Melissa Maestas, a mother of two students at Santa Fe High, said the agreement is important in helping open schools to more students. While one son, a senior, elected to remain in remote learning, the other, a sophomore, returned to campus because he needs in-person instruction.
“The way it has worked has benefited my son because some of his teachers are back in school and they can get together,” Maestas said.
However, the frustration from some parents is boiling over. During Thursday’s school district board meeting, parent Martha Jackson accused the union and García of thinking of only themselves instead of students.
“Thus far, the union appears to be adhering to an unidentified dogma that prevents their belief in the science of ever opening schools,” Jackson said. “It is no different from climate change deniers. It is no different from anti-vaxxers. It is no different from anti-maskers.”
García said that as more teachers come back to campus, some schools will change learning models. The popular one many district schools are employing is a model that creates “internet hubs,” where students learn remotely at individual work stations.
García added she is hopeful schools can eventually transition to a more traditional in-person teaching environment, even if it happens for the 2021-22 school year.
“There are the parents who want their children to come back that haven’t been able to and are expressing it more,” García said. “But we still have a large percentage of families and parents that are hesitant about coming back.”