Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Many teachers and two unions want schools to delay bringing students back into the classroom, saying they prefer starting the school year with remote learning as COVID-19 cases in the state spike.
The Albuquerque Teachers Federation polled union members, and the vast majority of those who responded support delaying in-person classes for students until after Labor Day – at the earliest.
“People don’t feel safe,” said Ellen Bernstein, ATF president.
The National Education Association of Santa Fe is also urging district leaders to start school under a remote model.
The state Public Education Department released its reentry guidance in June. It requires schools to start with a hybrid model that mixes in-person schooling with distance learning. Scheduling and logistics would be largely determined by the district.
Bernstein told the Journal that 4% of the 1,830 educators who responded to the survey were ready to start school under the hybrid model. The survey found that 88% of the licensed school employees agreed with a union proposal that would start school in August for all staff but push back in-person schooling for students.
The union suggests starting the hybrid model in September, if it’s safe to do so. The extra time would be used to coordinate online learning, get personal protective equipment and set up plans to accommodate staff who are at high risk for becoming severely ill from COVID-19, among other tasks, she said.
“As educators we know that real school (brick and mortar with in-person instruction) is best for students. We all want to return to real school,” ATF’s statement said. “However, real school has to be really safe for all staff and every student. We do not believe that the current data supports a safe return to in-person schooling in early August.”
Albuquerque Public Schools is scheduled to resume classes Aug. 12.
In Santa Fe, Grace Mayer, president of NEA-Santa Fe, says staff members want to get back to the classroom, but there are many health and safety concerns. She questioned the feasibility of launching the hybrid model in less than a month.
“We believe this is an unreasonable request and an untried model that cannot be done safely at this time,” the NEA letter says. A remote model could allow for small groups of students to meet with staff and receive some in-person instruction and other services, the union says.
Ryan Stewart, secretary of PED, said that as of now the hybrid model is required for reopening schools, though local districts can determine when the first day of school is.
That could change. On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said that while she wants students to return to classrooms, start dates could be pushed back by several weeks or into the winter if COVID-19 conditions in the state continue to worsen. She called online-only classes a “poor substitute” for traditional school.
Stewart said the PED has received questions from “a number of school districts” about starting the school year with remote learning only.
“There may be some limited – hopefully very locally specific cases – where you have to start remote just because of the safety and staffing issues, but by and large for the vast majority of schools out there, they should be offering an in-person, hybrid option,” he said.
Stewart emphasized that the in-person portion of schooling would have safety measures in place such as requiring masks and social distancing.
The education secretary said the state is at a difficult crossroads. Overall, he said, families are more ready to return to campus than educators.
Stewart added that the state has used the latest data to guide its decisions on school reentry, landing on the hybrid model to get kids back into the classroom while contributing to downward transmission trends.
“I just want all of our educators to know that their safety in all of this and the safety of their students in all of this is what we are prioritizing,” he said.
PED’s reentry guidance says districts should create processes to accommodate high-risk staff and give opportunities to teach from home. However, there isn’t a prescription on how to do that at the school level.
Potential retirement wave
With many educators hesitant to get back into the classroom, officials worry about a flood of retirements. After all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19 increases with age, and 25% of the teacher workforce in New Mexico is 55 years old or older – a percentage well above the national average.
Bernstein said she’s heard a substantial number of teachers say they will retire if they don’t feel safe going back to work.
Mass retirements would be a blow to the state, which is already facing a teacher shortage. According to data released late last year, there were 1,054 educator vacancies in the state, and 644 of those were teacher positions.
“To have them retire now, I think is going to be a detriment to the education system and to the kids,” Bernstein said.
Stewart said the potential for spikes in retirement is a major issue nationally and locally.
“I think it keeps everyone in the system up at night,” he said.
To keep teachers in the profession, he said the state is trying to reassure them that safety is a priority. And the state is working with districts on identifying additional assignment options for staff as needed, allowing flexibility around licensure.
Districts have until Wednesday to submit plans to the department, Stewart said.
Both unions have noted a tight time line and increased costs that come with implementing a hybrid model.
“We just need more time to do this well,” Bernstein said.
Stewart said the PED aimed to balance feedback and thoughtful planning with moving as quickly as it could.
“It’s never going to be fast enough,” he said.
Bernstein said the union has received hundreds of questions and comments after PED issued its guidance. Common concerns include what child care will look like for educators’ children, how to make various learning models work for students with disabilities and how to ensure contact with students during online school.
Questions and anxieties are building as fall rushes near, which is at the core of why teachers and unions are looking for a change of course.
“Educators have been asked for far too long to make do without, and ‘make things work.’ In the past, we have stepped up and made that happen out of sheer determination, professionalism and compassion for our students,” the NEA Santa Fe letter states. “We can’t make it work this time. We will not be coerced into risking our lives and the lives of our students, families and community.”