Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – School districts throughout New Mexico are losing large numbers of students as the educational landscape continues to shape-shift during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Superintendents Association, told members of the Legislative Finance Committee on Thursday that many students have gone entirely off the map, with their current educational situations still unknown.
It’s unclear exactly how many students are unaccounted for, but Rounds said districts across the state are unable to track down an alarming number of students.
“A majority of districts to some degree are facing this issue,” Rounds said in a phone interview after speaking to the committee.
Deming Superintendent Arsenio Romero told legislators his district has 209 fewer students this school year and has been unable to locate around 100 of them.
Those students represent around 2% of Deming’s 5,090 total students.
He said there’s an even larger group of students who are participating in online classes, but so infrequently that they’ll finish a year behind their peers.
Romero said families they have tracked down have decided to home-school their children or leave to attend school in another area, rather than attend online-only classes. He noted many families had moved to Texas, where there are fewer restrictions on in-person instruction.
Monica Armenta, an Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman, told the Journal APS does not track how many students are unaccounted for because there are no requirements for students’ parents or guardians to disclose where they are going once they leave the district.
Rounds said he is concerned about a third possibility: that families and their children have decided to leave the school system altogether, something he called “educational neglect.”
“It puts the student in a place potentially where they’re not receiving an education,” he said.
And, as many of the state’s schools remain online, enrollments have declined 0.5% statewide, with some districts losing around 10% of all their students, according to data released Thursday by the state Public Education Department.
At the same time, the number of students enrolled in home schooling has ballooned, especially in urban areas.
“Why would a parent come to a public school’s remote learning if they can buy remote learning?” Rounds asked legislators, noting that the option is usually restricted to wealthier families.
He said districts are not able to enforce attendance requirements as they have in previous years, and it has become more difficult to find students who are not coming to class.
And it seems unlikely district leaders will be able to stanch bleeding enrollment numbers, which are expected to remain unstable for the next two years, Rounds said.
Some legislators were shocked by the figures.
“I refuse to accept the premise that we are in this for the next 24 months,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs. “If that’s the case, New Mexico is not going to be able to provide for these children.”
Kernan and other legislators fear New Mexico will be unable to compete with neighboring states that have far fewer restrictions, such as Texas and Arizona.
“There’s much more opportunity in other states right now,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. “We won’t ever get those kids back in New Mexico.”
Rounds said he expects many students to return when the pandemic ends, but doesn’t know how many.
“They’re just in the wind, so to speak,” Rounds said.
Legislators also discussed the traumatic impacts a socially distanced education could be having on students. Rounds noted that the state has seen an increase in student suicides as children become more isolated.
“It’s horrible, it’s horrific and it’s happening at much higher rates,” he said.
Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said students need to return to school as soon as possible, citing the high number of suicides in his home of San Juan County. Farmington alone has seen four juvenile suicides since the pandemic started, according to a previous Journal article.
“We’ve got to get these guys back,” Neville said. “We don’t need to have some doctor, or whoever’s running this show, making the decisions on education.”
In an online news conference Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she knows remote learning is taking a social and emotional toll on students and their families. But she said it’s necessary – for now – to limit coronavirus deaths, and protect the health of educators and young people.
“It’s not just the student – it’s entire families who are affected,” Lujan Grisham said of remote learning. “There is no question this a poor substitute for in-person learning.”
Journal staff writers Dan McKay and Shelby Perea contributed to this report.