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Santa Fe, Rio Rancho districts to suspend in-person hybrid learning

Annabelle Booker, 11, one of the students participating in the hybrid learning program at El Camino Real Academy, is picked up by her mother outside the school in Santa Fe, Tuesday November 10, 2020. The program is being discontinued and all students will return to distance learning after November 20. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As COVID cases spike across the state, two of New Mexico’s largest school districts announced plans Tuesday to suspend in-person learning later this month.

Just two weeks into its hybrid school model, Santa Fe Public Schools said it would be shifting back to remote learning only. And on the heels of that announcement, the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education determined it would also pivot to fully virtual learning for the next two months.

The last day of in-person classes at both districts will be Nov. 20.

The Rio Rancho district has had roughly 4,000 students in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth back on campus since Sept. 14, taking part in a mix of in-person and online learning. Board members voted unanimously Tuesday night to discontinue the hybrid model with plans to restart it on Jan. 19.

At the virtual meeting, Jason Mitchell, senior vice president, chief medical and clinical transformation officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, told the board that opening schools in a hybrid capacity was safely doable when the state had lower positivity and transmission rates, but now cases are on the rise and the spread is “absolutely uncontrolled.”

“When we moved to hybrid, we really wanted this to work for our children. We really felt our children should be in school and we worked very hard to make that a reality, but we’re seeing now the situation is quite different,” Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland said.

Cleveland had also stressed to the board that the district was concerned there wouldn’t be sufficient staff to operate the schools in the coming weeks if employees travel for the holidays and have to quarantine after. She noted that many students were also planning to travel and wouldn’t be able to return to school right away under the governor’s health order.

According to district spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass, there have been 40 COVID-19 cases since students returned: 21 students, 16 staff and three contractors. The total reflects staff who are working remotely.

‘Flexible and responsive’

Meanwhile, Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica Garcia said that, while hybrid class sizes there were small, the current landscape of the pandemic made it increasingly risky to bring students to class.

“The status of the pandemic is looking more dire,” Garcia said. “My principals were already expressing concern … they heard about Halloween parties and sleepovers, and trick or treating with friends.”

The Santa Fe School Board originally voted Oct. 1 to introduce a hybrid learning model, in which teachers and students could volunteer to participate. A little more than 5% of the students eligible for hybrid learning in Santa Fe are actually taking part.

During that meeting, board members had said they felt school staff had taken enough precautions to warrant some form of hybrid learning, especially for students with special needs, and unanimously approved the plan.

At the time, Santa Fe County averaged 10 cases of COVID-19 a day – by the time hybrid classes officially started Oct. 26, that number had risen to 50. The county also recently shattered its daily case record, with 128 new cases.

Board President Kate Noble said that, despite having to end hybrid learning sooner than expected, she doesn’t regret approving the decision.

“The lesson of 2020 for me is to remain flexible and responsive,” she said. “I think that we did the right thing and I think we’re also doing the right thing now.”

Garcia said she felt the hybrid model was proving effective for students, while keeping them safe. Three staff members and a student tested positive after the program started, but the district maintains they most likely contracted the virus outside of school.

Edmund Gorman, a teacher at El Camino Real Academy, said he saw the benefits in-person learning had on students’ well-being. However, the anxiety they feel is palpable.

“They’re going through a lot,” he said. “They admit that they’re scared. They miss life the way it used to be and they’re afraid they may never get it back.”

Jared Varela, a 6th grader, waits for a bus with other students participating in the hybrid learning program, at El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe, Tuesday November 10, 2020. The program is being discontinued and all students will return to distance learning. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

El Camino Real Academy had 40 of its more than 800 students participating in the hybrid program, averaging about five per class, Principal Jack Lain said.

The trickle of students leaving the school after class ended Tuesday afternoon was a striking contrast to the flood of students seen during a typical school year. Stephanie Segura has three students at El Camino, but only one was able to attend hybrid learning due to limited availability. Still, it had offered her some relief while she still works a full-time job.

“I’m not happy about it,” Segura said of hybrid classes ending. “It definitely helps working parents who are working from home and still working full-time hours.”

It’s unclear when the Santa Fe district will reattempt hybrid learning in some fashion, if at all. Garcia said the district is hoping the state Public Education Department releases some guidance in January.

But with COVID-19 cases expected to continue spiking through the winter, there are doubts as to whether in-person learning can return unless there’s a dramatic reversal. For Gorman, the possibility of a return to in-person learning appears increasingly dim.

“I doubt it – unless everyone stays home for a bit,” he said.

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