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RRPS delays start of in-person learning until Sept. 14

RIO RANCHO, N.M. —  Rio Rancho Public Schools students will not return to the classrooms this week, after a special 2½-hour virtual school board meeting took place Friday morning.

Instead, mainly due to a few “curveballs” thrown Thursday, hybrid-learning students in grades K-5 — at 50 percent capacity — along with pre-K students enrolled at the new Shining Stars Preschool, will return to the classrooms Sept. 14.

The previous plan was to open the classrooms Tuesday. Principals want students back, said Janna Chenault, the district’s elementary school improvement officer.

Eighty percent of parents with hybrid students are OK with the return to classrooms, according to last week’s survey. Teachers weren’t as sure: On their surveys, 54 percent of teachers in pre-K through fifth grade, 57 percent of middle-school teachers and 61 percent of high school teachers said “no” to going back in person.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s current state public-health order limits in-person schooling to elementary and some special-needs students.

Under RRPS’s re-entry plan, students in grades K-3 whose parents selected the “hybrid” model would return in-person four days per week; students in grades 4-5 would return two days per week. Pre-K students would attend on their regular schedule of half a day, four days per week.

If the state amends the public-health order, middle and high school students may be able to return later in the year, and Superintendent Sue Cleveland said no specific date has been set.

The survey was sent out to 13,000 parents and RRPS staff members; 7,211 responses were recorded. It went out Tuesday, with a response deadline of noon Thursday.

Research and Polling Inc., one of New Mexico’s most respected polling organizations, tabulated the responses. Questions asked about children’s grade levels, registration in hybrid or virtual learning and comfort with returning to school in person with COVID-safe practices.

Board members not only evaluated the survey results, but also countless emails they had received. All five, plus Cleveland, favored a return to the classrooms. They voted 5-0 to take an extra week after hearing Cleveland tell them she had learned the night before that barriers were needed in the cafeterias, and two masks were required for everyone at all schools.

Chenault, Chief Operations Officer Mike Baker and Curriculum & Instruction Executive Director Carl Leppelman assured board members Sept. 14 would be a better day to open the facilities.

Baker told the board the HVAC systems will be turned on a couple hours before students arrive for “fresh air and better circulation,” he said, although that will cost the district another estimated $250,000 on its utility bill.

Another problem cited by Cleveland, although not likely to be remedied by Sept. 14, was filling 160 vacancies — not all teachers — “the most we’ve ever had,” she said. Once the middle and high school students return to the classrooms, she said she expects more teacher retirements.

“We don’t have a lot of people waiting in the wings,” she said.

Many teachers, especially in the “at-risk” demographic, have their own health concerns.

“The staff is very divided on wanting to come back,” Cleveland said. “Whatever you decide (on re-opening), we’ll make it work.”

More than half of the staff members questioned by the union favored retaining virtual learning.

Billie Helean, president of the Rio Rancho School Employees Union, said after the Albuquerque Public Schools decision to continue virtual-only learning until at least late December, the union surveyed the entire membership, around 1,800 people, including teachers, bus drivers, clerical staff and education assistants.

“In that survey, the union found that 65 percent of the respondents would prefer to stay in a remote environment until after winter break,” Helean, also a first-grade teacher at Stapleton Elementary, said in an email to the Observer.

“We are grateful for the collaborative effort with the district to further survey the staff and the community at large to get a better sense of how people feel after the governor’s press conference,” she said. “We will always advocate for the bargaining unit based on factual survey results and data.

“There were a variety of reasons. Safety is the primary one,” said Helean. “We want to make sure we’re keeping all the staff safe and the kids safe, and by extension their families. But in addition to those concerns, there were also concerns about stability for students.”

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