New Mexico public schools will remain closed for the rest of the current academic year, and local districts and charters will be tasked with continuing to educate students from a distance – a colossal charge that will unfold in the coming weeks.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said Friday that a statewide school closure will be extended for the rest of the academic year, due to rising coronavirus infection rates.
“It’s quite clear that it’s not yet safe to be able to bring our students back into school,” Stewart said during a virtual news conference.
Public preschools and K-12 schools across the state were ordered to shut down effective March 16 to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Students were initially scheduled to go back to school April 6, though Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently warned that the closure could end up being even longer.
As of Friday, state health officials had reported 191 positive cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico. Thirteen people are hospitalized statewide, and one person has died of the disease.
In addition to school closures, Lujan Grisham has ordered New Mexicans to stay home and go out only if absolutely necessary, nonessential businesses have been ordered to close, and gatherings have been limited to no more than five people.
“Keeping schools closed is one of the most important tools we have to support the social distancing that can help us reduce and mitigate the spread of the virus,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a statement.
The decision to extend the school closures through May was a difficult one, Stewart said, and he acknowledged that distance learning efforts being launched statewide will not replicate the traditional classroom experience.
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said the abrupt shift to distance learning will be particularly challenging in rural parts of New Mexico – including on the Navajo Nation – where internet service can be spotty, if it exists at all.
He also told the Journal the learn-from-afar model will be difficult for students with unstable home lives.
“Distance education is wonderful for highly motivated students and highly motivated adults, but a lot of students don’t have that,” said Soules, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and teaches advanced placement psychology at Oñate High School.
In the coming days, districts and charters will be crafting educational plans for “continuous learning” that will outline how lessons will get to students – either digitally, through paper packets or other means – and how students’ social and emotional wellness will be addressed.
The aim will be to engage students and keep up with crucial instruction.
“This is not a replication of the traditional school experience,” Stewart said. “It really is a focus on a few critical standards.”
Students will not be graded on the traditional A-F letter grade system. Instead, the state’s 89 school districts and charter schools will be asked to craft a pass-fail system.
Schools aren’t required to make up the missed instruction between March 16 and April 3. And instructional hours will continue to be waived for the rest of the school year, though districts must still develop learning plans, which are expected by April 8, Stewart said.
Monitoring attendance will largely be up to the individual districts and could be tied to tracking student work during the closure, he added.
Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, a history teacher at Atrisco Heritage High School who is chairman of the House Education Committee, said he understands many students and parents will have questions about the improvised system.
He said he plans to have his students research the Great Depression and the federal government’s response to it as one remote assignment.
“I trust that a lot of my colleagues are going to rise to the occasion and do what’s best for the students,” Romero told the Journal.
The upheaval to teaching New Mexico’s children will be a tight turnaround for some districts that will have to shift their traditional learning models with remote instruction beginning in early to mid-April.
In addition, schools must also continue to provide special education resources and work with these students on their customized education plans.
In a letter to teachers, parents and other community members, Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Raquel Reedy said that the district saw the closure extension coming and that a team has been working on a plan.
“Students belong in school. That’s where they learn best. But we also need to keep them safe, we need our staff and their families to stay healthy, and so we support the difficult decision announced by the state Public Education Department,” Reedy said in the letter.
While Reedy said there is more work to be done on the APS plan, some aspects were nailed down, including that the district will provide online and print resources and learning materials will be available in Spanish and other languages.
Reedy said there could be weekly assignments, projects and video check-ins. APS is also working with New Mexico PBS-TV to televise daily lessons for elementary school students. The programming is tentatively scheduled to begin April 6.
In neighboring Rio Rancho, spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass said the district is working on shifting instruction online for elementary and secondary students. She said 17% of families need a device and 2% don’t have internet access, which the district will address.
School districts will also determine requirements – or “demonstrations of competency” – for high school seniors, Stewart said.
“This can take many forms, including locally designed assessments, locally designed series of assignments and also more creative ways, such as applied work experience,” Stewart said.
He stressed that seniors won’t be stopped from graduating due to lack of access and districts must address high school seniors in the plans.
APS is prioritizing getting laptops and internet access to high school seniors to keep them on track for graduation.
“We are coming up with a plan to help our seniors earn their high school diploma. My heart breaks for these students who will miss out on so many senior traditions. We are committed to making sure these students graduate this school year and are prepared to move on to the next promising chapter in their lives,” Reedy said.
The deadline for seniors to meet requirements will be extended through mid-June, Stewart added.
Meanwhile, proms won’t happen during this time and graduations will “likely be postponed,” according to the PED.
Teachers, school administrators and other school employees will still be paid on the same pay scale during the extended school closures, as they deploy the distance learning programs.
“It is not time off for everybody,” Stewart said. “People are not being paid to not work.”
Other contracted employees’ pay will vary based on their contracts. The PED is asking that positions such as education assistants provide services virtually or through other means.
During this shift, APS will be providing virtual classroom training for teachers, and the district said it’s looking for areas of need where education assistants, librarians and school nurses can work for the rest of the year.
While school closures will have massive ripple effects in the community, Stewart said the tough decision was made to keep as many New Mexicans healthy and stop the spread of COVID-19.
“This announcement is not one that we take lightly. It has a tremendous impact on our families and our communities. We recognize that and we know that at this moment making sure that we are doing everything in our power to keep social distance and stop the spread of this virus makes having to make this very difficult call absolutely necessary,” Stewart said.