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Editorial: Communication key to school reopening

The new school year was already going to be a challenge.

A recent legislative report warns the lack of in-person schooling this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic could result in up to a year’s worth of learning loss for students. Addressing that loss just got harder with the Public Education Department’s decision to require schools to start the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid of in-person instruction at school and online learning at home. One model has a group of students in class Mondays and Tuesdays for the full school day, Wednesdays for remote learning for all and building sanitization, and a second group in class Thursdays and Fridays.

Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart says educators realize online learning isn’t an adequate substitute for being physically present, and the state’s goal is to move all to a full in-person schedule as soon as it’s safe. For now, state modeling data says starting with hybrid models is one of the safest ways to mitigate virus spread. But critics question its efficacy given many students will need to be in day care settings when they aren’t in school – exposing them to a whole new set of people. As for older students, do you want to bet if a substantial number hang out with friends instead of stay home?

That said, PED had a no-win decision to make. And opening schools at least partially is better than the recent experiment in all-remote “learning.” As state Sen. and Oñate High School teacher Bill Soules noted to the Journal, the reality after public schools were shuttered in March was “at very best, better than nothing, and not a whole lot more.” Despite Albuquerque Public Schools and other districts’ efforts at online and PBS at-home learning, our unacceptable achievement gap has most assuredly grown.

So what to do going forward? PED’s recommendation to give younger students and those with disabilities priority for in-person learning is prudent. And while the state has continued to live by a “one-size-fits-all” model for business reopening – even in counties with almost no COVID-19 cases – it appears PED is more flexible. The plan is to monitor virus cases by region so hot spots don’t hold all schools back. That makes sense. And it is vital parents, students and staff are kept informed. Surprises are not going to help this situation.

Parents are facing huge decisions – do they feel safe sending their child to school, will they allow their child to visit grandparents if they do attend school, who will take care of the child on the days they are not in school? Ditto for teachers.

PED’s plan includes many safety measures such as requiring face coverings for students and staff, screening staff daily, limiting the number of students in the classroom and avoiding large gatherings. (Good luck with the 5-year-olds.)

And some of these precautions will cost money – money the federal government provided districts to cover COVID-19-related costs. Unfortunately the budget solvency bill passed by lawmakers in the recent special session would, if approved by the governor, reduce the appropriation to the school funding formula by about $44.7 million based on the rationale that districts could absorb the loss because of their federal CARES Act cash.

Albuquerque Public School Chief Financial Officer Tami Coleman projects the so-called “CARES Act swap” could leave APS with a $10 million hole. The district received around $26 million of CARES Act money, but it’s for coronavirus spending including laptop computers for students and sanitation.

The hybrid will be a nightmare for many; let’s hope it’s a very temporary bridge. All districts need to be nimble and responsive to teachers, parents and students. There can’t be too much input on something of this magnitude, and school leaders need to continue the dialogue to get it right.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.