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‘We’re back to regular school’

Heather Valois checks out a laptop to Marcos Herrera, a junior at Highland High School. Albuquerque Public Schools started remotely Wednesday, with the first week devoted to distributing technology and virtual visits with students, in addition to the start of lessons. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Online learning in New Mexico has been a target for critics, but it’s the learning mode for hundreds of thousands of children due to the novel coronavirus.

While legislative reports showed that students likely fell behind in the spring when COVID-19 forced school closures, the state’s largest school district says that it’s a different animal this school year, and student expectations are higher.

“We are not in the continuous learning plan like the springtime. This is a new semester, and the reentry plan is a lot different – it’s not as (flexible) as it was in the spring,” Albuquerque Public Schools Associate Superintendent Madelyn Serna Mármol said about the school year that began remotely on Aug. 12.

After analyzing statewide continuous learning last school year, a Legislative Finance Committee report showed students – especially those who were at risk of academic gaps to begin with – could be facing months’ to a year’s worth of learning loss. The report blamed technology access issues, significantly reduced time spent on schoolwork each day and educators mainly teaching subjects they had already gone over, among other issues.

In late July, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said schools would start the 2020-21 school year with remote learning and continue until next month at least due to a spike in COVID-19 cases at the time. State Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart has admitted that remote learning is an imperfect substitute for in-person class but noted school districts will be better prepared than they were in the spring.

APS’ executive director of curriculum and instruction, Amelia Milazzo, said the setting may be different but the work students will be doing is largely the same as during a traditional year.

Heather Valois hands out laptops at Highland High School after the district started school remotely Wednesday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

For instance, while the district was encouraged by the state Public Education Department to move to a pass-fail system at the end of the 2019-20 school year, A-F grading will resume and grades will be comparable to previous years, Milazzo said.

“There are more things the same than different,” she said.

The PED released guidance on grading that said “each district and school can approach grades as they find appropriate for their community.” It also called for more feedback and less emphasis on letter grades by themselves.

And unlike the spring, when attendance wasn’t required, students are expected to “show up” this year. Students are being monitored for logging on for online lessons and doing their schoolwork. Attendance reporting to the state will still be required under remote learning, according to PED documents.

But there will be some tweaks to APS’ teaching strategy.

Teachers are encouraged to gauge academic performance earlier in the year than normal. That will give a general picture of baseline proficiency.

Milazzo said parents should rely on teacher communication for student-specific feedback.

“We will be able to measure some things based on interim assessments and different kinds of assessments, but that doesn’t really tell us the whole picture about what a kid knows and doesn’t know. So we are really relying on teachers to communicate frequently with parents about how a student is performing,” she said.

The APS reentry plan directs teachers to prioritize critical lessons before moving on to other material.

“Within the time available for instruction, it may not be possible to ‘cover’ all the standards that would normally be addressed. It is more important the most essential standards be addressed at a level of depth to ensure mastery and a solid foundation of learning,” the plan says.

Milazzo said critical standards are established by a group of experienced teachers in the district.

“We’re really trying to prioritize what students need to have a really solid understanding of,” she said.

The general expectation is for teachers to provide three hours of virtual lessons for the class to do together and two to three additional hours of work for students to do individually.

The PED won’t be waiving the instructional hours requirement as of now but has said face-to-face instructional time and remote instructional time are equivalent during the public health emergency.

Serna Mármol said the APS reentry plan took into account insights from last school year, legislative analyses, district data and educator feedback.

“We’re back to regular school,” she said, “it’s just in a different format.”

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