As COVID-19 cases continue to swell statewide and in Santa Fe with the swift spread of the omicron variant, including in local schools, a teachers union Monday urged Santa Fe Public Schools to consider shifting to a four-day week on campus, reserving Fridays for remote, “asynchronous” learning.

The teaching method differs from other types of instruction by allowing students to view materials independently online, with no real-time lessons.

By Monday evening, the district had reported 81 COVID-19 infections since Jan. 3 in which a student or staff member was contagious on campus — including 18 students at Capital High School. None of those cases were contracted at school but two at Santa Fe High likely were, according to the district. The total number of cases among students and staff is likely much higher, but the district only reports those that might have led to on-campus exposures.

There was a long line all day Monday at a testing site for students and staff outside Aspen Community Magnet School, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said.

Other schools in Santa Fe decided to go remote.

After more than 5 percent of students at Monte del Sol Charter School tested positive last week, administrators opted for at least a week of remote learning, a memo to students and parents says.

Santa Fe Indian School shut down its campus to in-person classes this week after reporting Friday the company that provides its COVID-19 tests was running short on supply. A post on the school’s web page lists athletic cancellations and directs students to log in to classes remotely throughout the week.

The National Education Association-Santa Fe has more concerns than high coronavirus case counts throughout the local district. It points to high teacher vacancies and low substitute teacher availability to fill gaps in teacher absences as other reasons to keep classroom lights dim on Fridays, at least for the next four weeks.

“Currently, educators sell their preps to cover classes without breaks throughout the day,” the union said in a letter to Chavez and the school board, referring to teachers giving up their preparation periods. “Also, the practice of adding 10-15 students to teachers’ classes when colleagues are out sick, increases class size and eliminates recommended safety procedures that are in place to mitigate the transmission rate of COVID 19 in our schools.”

The letter concludes: “This is unacceptable and violates the District’s commitment to provide a safe workplace for all employees and students.”

Chavez said he met with union members Monday, but the district had not yet made a decision on the request.

He agreed absences among staff and students were increasing, although he did not provide specific numbers.

“We’re discussing different options,” Chavez said. “Can we safely operate a school, a transportation route, provide meals, clean and disinfect schools?”

The district sent out a notice to parents Monday recommending all students and staff wear KN95 or surgical face masks to offer more protection than some other types of cloth masks and face coverings. Chavez noted it was not a requirement. Masks are available at school sites for those who need one, he added.

The union’s request for asynchronous learning days says the change would give teachers and staff time to take care of themselves and their families, while also allowing janitorial staff to clean school sites.

Chavez said the district has in part relied on asynchronous learning since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Of course, our preferred method is in-person, but we want to make sure our staff and students are safe,” he said.

The New Mexico Public Education Department has not yet updated its COVID-19 guidelines since the omicron variant began spreading throughout the state, sending case numbers skyrocketing.

A memo the department sent to superintendents and charter school directors Jan. 4 urges them to “make in-person learning available to the greatest extent possible, even if one or several schools must transition to remote instruction.” It also says deep cleaning of a school “is not a sufficient reason to transition a school or district to remote instruction, as we now know that COVID outbreaks are not driven by surface-to-surface transmission.”

Several school administrators, including New Mexico School for the Arts Head of School Eric Crites, said they are waiting for more guidance from the state on how to handle quarantine times and remote instruction.

“One of the challenges that we’re all facing is that there are not clear criteria that have been provided to us by epidemiological experts and infectious disease experts in our state,” Crites said. “[The state’s] not giving criteria to guide decision-making, so we’re really looking at the data that’s in front of us.”

New Mexico School for the Arts, which had 73 student absences Monday, Crites said, canceled classes Friday to observe the spread of COVID-19.

Crites said the school will continue holding classes on campus for now — but if in-school spread of the virus and staff absences become problems, that could change.

“We’re trying to get ready for every path before us,” he said. “[We’re] just giving students a lot of reassurance we’re in a different place, and if we do go remote, we anticipate it being a very temporary thing.”

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