The Santa Fe school board approved an agreement Thursday night with the National Education Association-Santa Fe that outlines how the district will prioritize requests from staff seeking a medical exemption from a possible return to face-to-face instruction.
The fall semester will begin Aug. 20 with students logging in remotely for at least the first nine weeks of school. But students could return to campus later this year through a hybrid model of in-person and online learning if the Department of Health determines it’s safe to do so.
All staff belonging to high-risk groups as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be exempt from returning to campus this school year. That includes anyone over 65 as well as those with chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a weakened immune system, obesity, cancer, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, type II diabetes or pregnancy.
The district has over 300 employees who are older than 65, Human Resources Director Howard Oechsner said.
Staff living with a family member, spouse or partner who would qualify for the first group will be given preference if they request to work from home, but an exemption is not guaranteed, according to the agreement approved Thursday.
“The whole point is to accommodate the employees. We want to accommodate those in the high-risk categories first,” said Josh Granata, the district’s general counsel. “If it came to the point where we had to determine [whether] to grant accommodation and we simply needed teachers in the classroom, then we would have to evaluate accordingly.”
So far, district officials said they have received 110 requests for exemptions from teachers. Around 40 percent of parents who responded to surveys said they prefer remote learning this school year, so NEA-Santa Fe President Grace Mayer said, as of now, it looks like no teachers will be forced back to campus against their will.
“Our priority is safety,” Mayer said. “We will figure this out with the district.”
Superintendent Veronica García said she will host a series of town halls next week to address concerns from teachers and parents about remote learning and a potential return to campuses.
The agreement says the district may have to transfer teachers to different schools against their will as a last resort to match teachers with students they can stay with for the entire school year.
Meanwhile, the district is continuing to battle a statewide teacher shortage. It has 39 vacancies for full-time teachers and other on-campus staff, including openings for four prekindergarten teachers, four elementary school teachers, eight special education teachers, seven bilingual teachers and seven STEM teachers, Oechsner said.
“We have a teacher shortage,” García said. “As always, our goal is for students to keep the same teacher from the beginning until the end.”