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Editorial: Schools with on-site classes can offer valuable lessons for other districts

You never know until you try.

As Albuquerque Public Schools and many other large districts around the state are limiting all or most instruction to the virtual world, a few districts such as Rio Rancho and Socorro are cautiously reintroducing in-person learning to K-5 students.

Classes only started last week, so it’s too early to tell if this can be pulled off without creating COVID-19 hot spots that present risks for students, teachers, staff and their families. The state Public Education Department has reported 126 COVID-19 cases in school populations since Aug. 17.

But the precautions these districts have taken are impressive, and they deserve credit for trying. After all, the stakes are high, and most would agree that online learning for lower grades and special education students, in particular, is far from ideal. In fact, some would argue it’s a disaster – both in terms of learning experience and the disparate impact on women, many of whom are leaving the workforce or reducing their work hours to be in charge of virtual home school. Concerns are running so high, last week state Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, and others filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s refusal to authorize reopening of schools in every county, arguing it violates the constitutional right of students to an equal education. (In-person classes at 50% capacity require a school to have a state-approved re-entry plan and its home county to have fewer than eight new virus cases a day per 100,000 population and a test-positivity rate under 5%.)

First, it’s worth noting that school districts like Rio Rancho and Socorro are operating within the hybrid learning reopening guidelines set out by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. While the governor can order public schools to close under a health emergency, she doesn’t have the power to order them to open their doors. That’s up to independently elected school boards around the state. At APS, Santa Fe and Las Cruces, those elected officials have opted out of in-person classes for now.

Under the framework set forth by the governor and the Public Education Department, the 11 elementary buildings in Rio Rancho Public Schools, along with its new Shining Stars Preschool, opened the doors to students last Monday for the first time since March.

Vista Grande Elementary School Principal Christine Prescott showed some of that traditional “start of school” excitement, telling the Rio Rancho Observer that only one teacher chose to retire rather than return and attendance – whether virtual or in-person – was down only slightly – from 670 a year ago to 658 this year, including three transfers from APS.

The option for virtual learning remains, but many parents voted with their actions to send kids back to the classroom rather than set them in front of a computer.

The district has worked hard on precautions. Hallways are split in half with one direction of travel on each side; separate doors are used by each grade to get to the playground, with the number on the playground limited; desks in classrooms are at least 6 feet apart; hand sanitizer is at every entrance; drinking fountains are no longer in use but are equipped with a faucet to allow kids to fill water bottles. Barriers will be set up between seats in the cafeteria. Masks are everywhere.

At San Antonio Elementary in Socorro, students and staff pass through a station where their temperature is taken before entering the building. Custodians clean throughout the day and disinfect after classes with a fogger. Within classrooms, students sit at least 6 feet apart and wear masks. In one case, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher taught in one room while her students worked in the next room with an opening separated by a plastic sheet. “That was the happy medium we were able to come up with that would allow her to be in class and that provided her with the sense of safety she wanted,” head teacher John Ray Dennis said.

In Socorro’s biggest elementary school, students don’t eat in the cafeteria. Lunch is brought to their classrooms, and the only time students can leave is for gym, restroom and recess.

“We are managing the hallways to make sure kids aren’t gathering,” Principal Laurie Ocampo told the El Defensor Chieftain newspaper.

At another Socorro elementary, Midway, more parents wanted their children to attend in person than the school could accommodate and still comply with the state’s 50% capacity mandate based on the size of the facility.

On the flip side, Journal reporter Shelby Perea chronicled the difficulties faced by nurse practitioner Melissa Ortiz of Albuquerque, who is trying to help her three sons with online learning. While her children are older and wouldn’t be in the classroom anyway under the guidelines, her story illustrates the challenge.

Given her profession, Ortiz says she’s never been able to reduce her hours “throughout this whole pandemic.”

“Now … after working all day I have to go home and try to figure out why we’re missing four assignments and why we can’t figure out some of the steps to complete an assignment.”

Her friend Ivy Sunderland has two students at North Star Elementary in Albuquerque and says she has to be technology support, teacher, lunch lady and more – on top of her full-time job.

“I’ve never been spread so thin,” she said, adding that she loses patience under pressure. “Both (of the kids) have been on the floor crying at least once this week. One has run away – twice.”

New Mexico is in a relatively good place when it comes to current infection rates, but around the world we’ve seen some rebound of the virus, which appears inevitable as things open. And world leaders are increasingly coming to the conclusion that open they must. Lockdowns are no longer an option.

That’s illustrated by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said in the Wall Street Journal last week the government’s aim now – after a two-month lockdown decimated the economy – was to slow the contagion (with measures like mask requirements) while continuing to let people live as normally as possible.

“The pandemic is by no means over, but we are, as we must, find(ing) a way to live with this virus,” Hendrik Streeck, head of Bonn University’s virology department, told the Wall Street Journal.

That’s exactly what districts like Rio Rancho and Socorro are trying to do. And it’s worth other districts keeping a close eye on how things go and emulating what works – for the sake of all our students, parents, teachers and staff.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.