Editorial: Leaders, districts must stanch NM’s big learning losses

“Controlling the virus to levels that make it possible for more students to return to school should be a central project for the state and its citizens going forward.”

– Legislative Finance Committee report

An ominous legislative report about the inadequacies of remote learning emphasizes we need a long-term plan minimizing learning losses from school closures, mitigating widening academic achievement gaps and putting students first.

And a big part of that is returning to in-person learning or redirecting funding to proven online programs.

The Legislative Finance Committee report presented last week says remote learning in spring 2020 could cost elementary and middle school students between four months to over a year of learning, and middle and high school students are failing classes at high rates. While alarming, the findings are not surprising. It was similar to a June LFC report that projected spring school closures could result in students losing three months to a year of learning.

Those estimates don’t take into account learning losses from this fall. And because there were no uniform end-of-year assessments last school year or at the start of this year, things could actually be a lot worse.

Whether it’s three months, four months, a year or longer, too many students were already behind pre-pandemic and are now falling behind even further. The LFC report says while remote learning has improved, it’s still an inadequate substitute for in-person learning. And if you don’t believe the LFC, here’s what a teacher/mom has to say. Hope Morales, a third-grade “exemplary” teacher in Roswell, writes in the Oct. 23 Journal, “As a parent of three children in elementary, middle and high school, I assumed I had all the credentials to support my children during distance learning. I was wrong. … I cannot give them the time, energy, attention and support that they are used to during a normal school day.”

Morales and many other parents want choices beyond the current virtual instruction now being offered by most of our public schools, noting that in-person learning is available only in certain districts, and with specific indicators for a limited number of elementary and special education students. The LFC report says that 84% of our K-5 students could have returned to school for some in-person learning but that most were not given the option.

Meanwhile, countries including New Zealand, Germany, Vietnam and Sweden have put children’s learning first, with in-person classes. New Mexico is one of seven states keeping schools partly to mostly closed. The in-person learning we do have does not appear to have contributed to the alarming community spread in the Land of Enchantment.

With record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases reported each day, it’s perfectly understandable many teachers and parents are not comfortable with a return to the classroom. Without their buy-in, there’s little momentum to reopen schools. But the status quo is untenable. The LFC report says about 6% of students are still without home internet and 5% lack a digital device, meaning 16,000 to 19,000 of our estimated 330,000 students are completely left behind. Of those in remote learning, teachers reported being unable to reach one in five students, with 40% not consistently completing offline assignments.

And districts including Albuquerque Public Schools are reporting enrollment declines in the thousands.

The LFC report calls for a “complete and transparent road map” for K-12 school reentry. The education crisis demands the governor’s and lawmakers’ attention now; the bottom line is that parents need to be assured that for parents wanting in-person learning for their children, schools will reopen in January – even if it is a hybrid approach.

It’s likely the numbers of COVID-19 cases will remain high – but our students cannot afford to wait for a vaccine before having the opportunity to go back into the classroom. Why is eating in a restaurant more important than reading? Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham needs to use her clout to advocate for a COVID-safe reopening, prioritizing all K-12 students. School districts and legislators need to as well. Students’ families are already voting with their feet. If New Mexico wants to have a healthy public school system, it needs to get it off life support.

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.

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