Santa Fe Public Schools is still committed to starting its hybrid learning model next month in elementary schools, despite pushback from teachers with fears about safety and concerns about how much work it will take to make the model effective amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Superintendent Veronica García told members of the public in an online town hall meeting Monday the district has every intention of bringing students back into classrooms when the second nine-week grading period begins Oct. 15 — though it plans to make accommodations for kids who wish to remain in the online-only learning model.
She acknowledged teachers had expressed anxiety about in-person instruction during a virtual meeting Monday prior to the public session. Chief among their worries is how the district will ensure the safety of teachers and their families and prevent students from spreading the novel coronavirus.
García said teachers also wanted to know whether they would have to teach both students remaining on the virtual-only model and those participating in the hybrid. She said she would start by asking teachers to “volunteer” to return to their classrooms.
Teachers have until Wednesday to inform their principals whether they will agree to return to campus, García said.
The next school board meeting is set for Oct. 1, and García said she expects a decision then on when the hybrid model will start for elementary students.
“We know that many families are experiencing hardships and are concerned about their children and want their children back at school,” García said. “We believe that there are faculty and staff that would prefer to teach and come back in person.”
But the district has so far received 304 employee requests for accommodations allowing them to continue working remotely. Among them were 168 teachers. García acknowledged if more teachers refuse to return to school, meeting the Oct. 15 target date to launch a hybrid model will be much more difficult.
“It has become evident that more and more staff are concerned about coming back,” she said. “It’s very real and we have to address it.”
Teacher Joaquin Martinez, who asked that his Santa Fe district school not be identified, said in an interview Monday night he would not volunteer to return to his classroom because he believes it is unsafe for staff and students.
He said he’s not alone.
“Based on what I’ve read and seen, over 90 percent of teachers have expressed their concerns over the safety of this program going forward,” Martinez said. “When you look at the cost-benefit analysis, the kids will be in school for two days a week.
“Teachers and families have set up these online systems, and they are just starting to take hold,” he added. “Teachers are getting used to it. Students are getting used to it. And they want to pull the rug out from under us.”
Grace Mayer, president of the National Education Association-Santa Fe, said the teachers union is working with school officials to answer some of the teachers’ questions about safety, especially those regarding sanitization protocols and mask requirements.
She pointed to a roadblock school districts face when it comes to trying to offer alternate options for students, parents and staff who don’t favor the hybrid model: mandates from the New Mexico Public Education Department.
Mayer noted one state requirement under the hybrid model is that each class roster must be split in half — regardless of the number of students — and each group must attend school for two days a week and learn remotely the remaining three days. This could add more work for teachers who agree to work in the classroom, Mayer said, because they will have to teach both in-class and remote-learning students, perhaps at the same time.
It also strains schools with a small teaching staff.
García noted that between 40 percent and 60 percent of students at each public school in Santa Fe are opting to continue learning remotely, which lessens the number of students each teacher will have in the classroom.
Some schools will be able to accommodate both teaching models without taxing teachers, she said. But others lack the staffing levels to accomplish that.
García said the district is trying to find ways to correct that situation.
“If we had a very experienced substitute who was maybe a retired teacher who was subbing that would be willing to come in long term, that could be a possibility,” she said. “But it does limit options if we don’t have the staffing.”
Martinez said he wants the public to understand that teachers aren’t reluctant to return to campus because they are comfortable teaching from home. They are worried about exposure to the virus, he said — some so fearful they are considering resigning if required to go back to their classrooms.
“Every teacher wants to be in the classroom,” Martinez said. “We just don’t want to risk our lives for it.”