By moving Santa Fe Public Schools to remote learning, even for less than a week, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez is taking a risk.
Parents who can’t work while supervising their children will be unhappy. Politicians who want to present a normal face to the world — believing schools must be open — will be skeptical and critical. Students who are sick of learning in front of a computer screen instead of in person likely wish they could stay in school with their friends. Learning loss during an already tough year is possible.
It’s a big risk, but by moving the district to remote learning, Chavez could be doing the schoolchildren of New Mexico a favor.
That’s quite an achievement for a Santa Fe superintendent only halfway through his first year on the job.
The favor is this: Rather than pretend all is well, Chavez has made it clear that schools need additional resources to stay open safely. Primarily, the state must increase virus testing capacity and improve contact tracing. Otherwise, a superintendent cannot guarantee students and staff are safe.
Too many adults are giving lip service to the need for children to be in classrooms without making sure the systems are in place to make that happen. The Santa Fe school district has improved air circulation in buildings and put in place testing protocols to track COVID-19’s spread.
But testing without speedy results falls short. A school administrator needs to know quickly whether a teacher or bus driver has tested positive. The state is short of tests, and demand is high. Just before Chavez announced his decision, the district reported an all-time high of 361 COVID-19 cases last week among staff and students, with that number likely to rise to 600 or more.
A remote pause should give contact tracers time to run all the cases, notify possible exposures and, we would hope, allow testing sites to catch up. Wednesday’s news that the White House is going to provide 10 million tests for schools monthly should help the situation.
Santa Fe is not the only district going remote, just the biggest. Charter schools and smaller districts also have decided to take a break from in-person learning. State officials — from the Public Education Department to the Department of Health — should use this time to increase testing capacity across the state. Without adequate testing, remote learning could be the necessary for more districts.
Buying and handing out N95 masks to all staff members on campuses would be useful, too. It might be necessary to require vaccinations for all on-site staff and as many students are eligible — those who either cannot vaccinate or won’t could work remotely, when possible.
Meanwhile, Chavez also must deal with the crisis and juggle traditional superintendent duties — overseeing the district and making sure children receive the education they deserve.
He received a one-year contract after being chosen to replace Veronica García as superintendent. While he has been on the job for just over six months, the Board of Education will begin its evaluation of Chavez on Thursday at its regular meeting, the start of a process that leads to a discussion of his contract.
To be effective, a superintendent needs a multiyear commitment. A longer contract shows board members believe they have selected a winner for the top job, and gives the district’s leader a chance to make tough decisions without looking over his or her shoulder — at least for awhile.
Since being promoted, Chavez has had to run the district amid an unprecedented crisis. His evaluation will measure those efforts — and being brave enough to take the district remote is a plus — while also examining his budding work on developing curriculum, setting budgets and planning for the future.
This week, Chavez has shown leadership skills. He is telling parents, community members and politicians that schools do not have all they need to operate safely. That’s a call for help, one that needs to be answered with a doubling down to increase testing capacity.
Do that, and Santa Fe schools will be back to running in-person classes, depending on remote learning only for students who are ill or for individual schools that lack adequate staff. The new normal after the remote phase will be tough but can keep children where everyone wants them — at school, interacting with teachers and their fellow students.
That’s what Chavez wants, too. And he’s willing to risk the wrath of parents and politicians to make it happen.