As school districts across New Mexico try to plan for an uncertain future, legislative analysts are looking to the past school year to make determinations about distance learning.
A Legislative Education Study Committee report found that academic gaps between students were likely widened because of varying district responses to school shutdowns across the state.
For instance, 30% of districts had a plan to address students who were falling behind while the others did not.
The report’s release came a day after school districts statewide submitted their plans for the upcoming school year to the state Public Education Department.
During a Thursday meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee, PED chief Ryan Stewart testified online that remote learning is “not a perfect substitute” for in-person learning.
But he said school districts will be better prepared to teach students online than they were after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration announced statewide public school closures in March in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“Our plan is to go to full re-entry as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Stewart said Thursday.
After shuttering schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the PED tasked districts with educating students from afar, issuing guidance to move to a pass/fail grading model and to focus on critical standards when teaching.
Chelsea Canada, LESC senior policy analyst, noted that the guidance was a big deviation from the norm, which doesn’t come without consequences. What resulted at the end of the school year was a lack of uniformity in the state for continuous learning, the LESC report shows.
Canada said differences in the way plans were offered and implemented “may have widened the achievement gap between New Mexico’s economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers.”
And there are some gray areas in terms of whether PED is allowed to make some of the calls it did around instructional time and attendance requirements, among others.
“It is unclear whether public school laws and regulations – designed to ensure access to a free education for all children – can be waived by the department during a public health emergency,” she said.
In response, a PED spokeswoman defended the agency’s handling of the situation, citing federal guidance and a state law that gives the agency secretary the ability to waive the minimum length of school days in certain situations.
The LESC report follows findings from the LFC that school closures could result in months’ to a year’s worth of learning loss for students.
Achievement gaps are widening in a state that was already found by a New Mexico judge to have failed to provide a sufficient education for all students, especially those who are considered at risk by the landmark Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.
An analysis of continuous learning plans found the majority of districts had a plan to support students with disabilities, but were less consistent in supporting English language learners.
Just 12% of districts said they had a plan to support Native American students.
During the pandemic, Gwen Perea Warniment, PED deputy secretary, said the department has identified a new “superclass” of at-risk students who are considered as such because they are struggling to learn in the new environment for a variety of reasons. This could include students who were considered at-risk before COVID-19 but for whom hurdles have mounted.
Some lawmakers have urged education officials to prioritize in-person learning, with Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, saying Thursday that remote learning proved problematic in many rural parts of New Mexico after schools were shuttered.
“I’m just worried about the future outcomes of our students and what they’re losing,” he said during Thursday’s LFC hearing.
Other lawmakers voiced similar concerns, with Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, predicting additional lawsuits could be filed targeting the adequacy of the state’s education system.
The LESC report found most educators went the digital route to continue teaching. But student access was a key issue that districts had to combat and will have to continue to combat.
The report shows 47% of the state’s 89 districts provided Wi-Fi hotspots at the school or in the community. That percentage dropped to 20% for the districts that provided Wi-Fi devices to students who don’t have home internet access.
The vast majority of districts provided physical learning resources due to the lack of digital access.
“Moreover, most of New Mexico’s teacher workforce was never trained to use online platforms like Zoom or Google Classroom to effectively deliver basic education services,” the report says.
With school re-entry plans varying around the state, PED and many districts have spent money on new technology. The LESC report shows 83% of districts distributed devices to students last school year.
But Stewart acknowledged there could still be gaps. What’s known as the “digital divide” disproportionately affects low-income students in both rural and urban areas, the LESC report notes.
Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the director of technology at Santa Fe Indian School, testified during a LESC hearing this week the divide is stark. Many Native American families lack regular access to the internet and some families rely on cell phones for the internet, she said.
“The digital divide … is now a chasm,” Sekaquaptewa said.
With the school year set to start in most parts of New Mexico in about a month, Stewart said roughly a dozen school districts and charter schools have already signaled their intent to begin with online classes, a number that could grow even higher.
During Thursday’s LFC meeting, Hobbs Municipal Schools Superintendent T.J. Parks told lawmakers that his district plans to have younger students and some special education students attend school four days per week, with schools closed one day a week for cleaning.
Older students would only go to school two days a week and do distance learning on the other school days.
But he also said it was important to prioritize the safety of both teachers and students alike.
New Mexico school districts were told to draft back-to-school plans that include ramped-up safety and cleaning, based on PED guidance.
However, the LESC report said the guidance doesn’t effectively distinguish between what is required and what is recommended. It also highlights that while PED outlines best practices it doesn’t have mechanisms to guarantee follow through.
LESC staff estimate about 17% of the state’s schools will be unable to accommodate all of their students with six feet of separation.
“Even if ample physical space is available to accommodate all students during the hybrid phase, schools may have a difficult time finding sufficient staffing for all classrooms, especially given the current statewide shortage of licensed educators,” the report says, among a host of other considerations for the upcoming school year.
While PED officials have also said they plan to expand child-care services to help parents who have to leave home for work, that could prove a difficult task.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, a former early childhood center director, said Thursday about half of child care centers statewide currently remain closed due to the pandemic.
Ryan Boetel contributed to this report.