Santa Fe Public Schools had the best-laid plans for redesigned, reimagined and rebooted learning for students this year, with schools opening in remote and moving to in-person as the semester advanced. Regrettably, the surging coronavirus has caused us to reverse course and place in-person learning on hiatus.

Though we must close school buildings, our resolve remains strong to provide a high-quality education to all students so they can learn and thrive, albeit remotely. We will reassess our ability to return students and staff safely to classrooms in January.

Making this call was difficult. Students and staff who volunteered to return to in-person learning Oct. 26 were starting to make inroads, feeling ever more confident about being back in their classrooms. Volunteer teachers were ably meeting the learning needs of both hybrid and remote students.

We believed our investment in personal protective equipment, plexiglass dividers, sanitization protocols and much more would help to protect all. We rejoiced as students reconnected with friends and staff just three weeks ago, attaining a degree of normalcy upon their return to school.

But we could not ignore the fact of increased coronavirus spread in our community. We had to act in the best interest of students and staff and close schools.

I understand the concerns of parents who volunteered to join us in our hybrid journey. We know they, like us, want their students to have normalcy, including face-to-face instruction and all that comes from being in bustling school buildings.

Though this decision is incredibly disappointing, our well-laid plans will sustain us. These include a learning model that prioritizes students’ social-emotional health, closing technology gaps for students and families due to public support of the Educational Technology Note and continuing assessment of learning gaps that resulted from last spring’s school closures.

Three months in, our battle to close learning gaps remains. The Legislative Finance Committee and our data analysis show that too many students this semester are failing courses. And too many of them are not present to learn. We cannot and will not let the fallout from the virus leave them behind. We are as committed as ever to ensure a year’s worth of growth for all students.

As I pen this op-ed and the virus roars, our administrators and principals are developing strategies to ensure students can make the grades needed for success, particularly our English-language learners. With roughly 14 percent of these learners, grades 3-12, falling behind, we are immediately reviewing instructional strategies and support needed to improve learning.

This school year feels like a never-ending cycle of change. It started with surveying our community, holding numerous town halls across the district, listening to comments at Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education public forums and engaging in citywide community conversations.

We’ve worked with the union and received New Mexico Public Education Department approval, not once but twice, for our plan to educate students remotely and in person during this crisis. We’ve developed schedules and new schedules, given changing student roster requirements.

We’ve ensured that special education students could return to classrooms with appropriate educational assistance. We’re even working to certify when a staff member can safely return to work after a bout with the virus.

It’s been a tough journey. But each day teachers across the district are creating amazing opportunities for students to demonstrate creative thinking and problem-solving, and connecting in heartwarming ways.

Many students and parents are enduring heartbreak and frustration over remote instruction. Clearly, the optimal place for students is in their classrooms, learning with their peers and engaging face to face in real time with their teachers.

I have strong faith that we can ensure high-quality learning and uphold student well-being, but we need your help. This holiday season, please wear your mask, social distance, wash your hands and limit gatherings.

We miss your children. The path to normalcy lies in changing the course of this pandemic.

Dr. Veronica C. García is the superintendent of the Santa Fe Public Schools.

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