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Three Socorro County elementary schools welcome students back

San Antonio Elementary School teacher Amy Smythe teaches behind plastic sheeting during the first week of in-person learning. (Blake Gumprecht/El Defensor Chieftain)

SOCORRO – JohnRay Dennis, head teacher at San Antonio Elementary School, hurried over to the bright green “hurricane” on the school’s playground, where a half-dozen youngsters on Friday were hanging from the equipment, ready to spin.

“Three only! Three only!” he told the kids.

He urged some of the students to jump off and reminded all of them that only three children are allowed on any single piece of playground equipment at one time because of state coronavirus safety guidelines for schools.

“Only three at a time,” he repeated as he roamed the playground, making sure kids were wearing masks and following all the new rules.

San Antonio Elementary School head teacher JohnRay Dennis reminds students that only three are allowed on playground equipment at one time because of state coronavirus guidelines for schools.

San Antonio Elementary was one of three elementary schools in Socorro County that resumed in-person learning last week, which the state allowed for the first time since March in counties where the number of coronavirus cases has declined and school districts had reentry plans approved by the state Public Education Department.

Parkview Elementary in Socorro and Midway Elementary in Polvadera, part of the Socorro Consolidated School District, like San Antonio, also returned to in-person learning last week.

So far, New Mexico has authorized only students from pre-kindergarten to grade 5 to return for in-person learning, and they are permitted only in reduced numbers. Grades 6 to 8 will return next, depending on the status of the virus. Grades 9 to 12 will return last.

Under the state’s “hybrid” phase-in of in-person learning, schools can reopen at up to 50% of capacity if they can maintain social distancing. Families are given the option of whether their children will study in person or remotely.

Fifth-grader MaLeah Brown scrubs her hands with hand sanitizer. (Blake Gumprecht/El Defensor Chieftain)

Recess at San Antonio Elementary demonstrated how difficult it may be for schools to adhere strictly to COVID-19 guidelines in the comparatively unstructured environment of the playground.

Few kids were six feet apart. Groups of boys were roughhousing around an oversized swing. Running and playing, kids forget about their masks, which sometimes slipped below their noses or further down.

“All of this is very new to everyone,” Dennis said. “We are doing everything we are required to do as best we can, but still realizing they are kids and they want to be outside, they want to run and play, and be a kid.”

Adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines was easier in the school building and classrooms than it was on the playground.

At San Antonio, the smallest of the Socorro district’s three elementary schools, 39 of 83 students, or 47%, attended in person last week. The rest studied remotely via technology.

When students and staff arrive in the morning, they must pass through a station at the front door where their temperature is taken automatically.

Hand sanitizer is available on a stand just inside the door. Every classroom has hand sanitizer, paper towels and wipes available. Custodians clean throughout the day and disinfect the school with a fogger daily after everyone leaves.

Because San Antonio is small, with only four regular classrooms and four teachers for six grades – multiple grades are combined in each classroom – the school’s strategy for providing both in-person and remote learning is different than at larger schools, such as Parkview in Socorro.

Each teacher taught both in-person and remote students simultaneously using large interactive screens in the classrooms to reach students not attending in person. But even within the school, there was variation in how teachers taught. San Antonio’s kindergarten teacher, Melanie Sanchez, chose to teach from home, so in-person students watched her on a screen in their classroom.

The most visually jarring scene was that of a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Amy Smythe, who taught in one room while her students sat in the next room, separated by a plastic sheet that covered a small opening between the rooms.

“That was the happy medium that we were able to come up with that would allow her to be in class and that provided her the sense of safety that she needed,” Dennis said.

Within classrooms, students sat at least six feet apart and all wore masks. Each student’s work area was surrounded on three sides by Plexiglas that formed a small, transparent cubicle.

All Socorro district schools use Google Classroom software to make interactive learning possible.

Overall, Dennis said that the return to in-person learning has been beneficial. He said teachers and students have advanced considerably since spring in their use of the technology.

Parkview Elementary is the largest elementary school in the Socorro district, with 415 students. About one-third of Parkview students attended in person last week.

The school’s large size provides advantages, but also creates additional difficulties. Because it has more teachers than San Antonio, each of its 20 grade-level teachers instruct either in-person or remote students exclusively, not both at the same time.

So, in some classrooms, education looks much like it did before, except that classes are smaller, students are more widely spaced and everyone wears a mask. In other classrooms, teachers stand alone, teaching remote students via an interactive screen.

The added number of students, though, forces school officials to be more careful about reducing potential interactions and crowding among students.

When students arrive at school, they are escorted in socially distanced groups to their classrooms, where they spend most of their day. They don’t go to most of their special classes, such as art or computer.

Unlike at the smaller San Antonio or Midway schools, students don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. Instead, lunch is brought to their classrooms. The only time students leave their classrooms during the day, except to go to the restroom, is for gym and recess.

“We are managing the hallways to make sure kids aren’t gathering,” Parkview Principal Laurie Ocampo said.

Recess also requires extra precautions because of the large number of students. Kids are required to stay in small groups and remain six feet apart. They are not allowed to touch one other. They can’t throw balls back and forth.

“We are being kind of crazy about it,” Ocampo said. “We want to make sure our kids are healthy and our staff is healthy.”

Teachers are also incorporating instruction about the coronavirus, and guidelines for reducing risks, into their lessons. Teachers of young children have stuffed animals in the classroom wearing masks.

The Parkview principal was wary about the return to in-person learning, but she said that students have adjusted quickly to the COVID-19 world, and all the restrictions that it requires.

“I think we underestimate children,” she said. “They are totally keeping on their masks.”

Midway Elementary in Polvadera has the largest percentage of students among the three schools in the Socorro district who are attending school in person. Last week, 64 of 94 students, or 69%, attended in person.

That percentage would seem on the surface to violate state rules, but Julie Romero, Midway’s head teacher, said it does not because the school’s classrooms are large and can accommodate more students than are enrolled in the school.

“We have been able to socially distance and follow all the rules,” she said.

Romero said that a greater percentage of Midway students are attending in person than at other Socorro district schools because the area has poor internet service, making it more difficult for students to study remotely.

In fact, more Midway parents wanted their children to attend in person than are able to do so because of the state requirements that limit schools to 50% of capacity.

“We’re having to put a hold on accepting any more students for in-person leaning,” she said. The rest are learning remotely.

“It’s not normal,” Romero said. “It’s not routine. It’s not habit. But I think our kids in one week are doing really great jobs. Although it’s not an ideal situation, our students are able to participate in learning. They’ve been able to interact with teachers and their peers. It’s been very exciting. I feel like we’re finally able to give them what they need to do well academically.”

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