A once-bustling cafeteria with kids packed onto benches shoulder to shoulder now limited to two students per table with screens separating them from their peers. Teachers and kids wearing masks, water fountains blocked off and desks situated six feet away from one another where tables for group learning used to be.
These are a few of the safety precautions that became routine for roughly 4,000 prekindergarten through fifth grade students in Rio Rancho Public Schools who came onto campus for a hybrid of in-person and online learning.
While the district will shift to fully remote learning for these grades as of Monday through at least Jan. 18, RRPS appears to be poised for an easier transition when students return, unlike during the spring and summer when they were first faced with the foreign and monumental task of teaching while mitigating the spread of a highly contagious virus.
Middle and high school students have been doing remote learning all school year, and the state has not indicated a target for their return.
Elementary school improvement officer Janna Chenault directly oversaw Rio Rancho’s hybrid model come to fruition in the district.
She’ll be the first to say it took a lot of planning and a lot of work – and about $2.2 million.
Overall, the district considers the hybrid model a success and says that since mid-September, there have been fewer than 70 positive COVID-19 cases reported.
Educational environments had to be completely rethought, from how kids move in the hallway to where they are placed in the classroom, all while abiding by state Public Education Department reopening criteria.
“The biggest obstacle was physically with the campuses and trying to figure out how many kids we could get in the class and what the movement of the campus would look like,” Chenault said. “And how we were going to do school, which is typically a social environment, and how we were going to restrict that social piece and still have quality education. That was really difficult.”
RRPS opened all of its 11 elementary schools and its preschool for partial in-person learning, giving parents the choice between the hybrid approach or entirely online schooling. The hybrid approach had most students coming in four days a week.
The some 4,000 prekindergarten through fifth grade hybrid learners make up approximately 60% of the students in those grades.
According to the district, out of 185 transfer requests the district received for this school year, 45 of the applications listed hybrid learning as a reason for coming to the district.
Student temperatures were taken before entering a building, classes were downsized and six-feet markers were placed inside and outside schools to show students how to distance themselves.
Chenault said these measures will be implemented for the next reopening, too.
“I think everything that we’ve put in place will stay in place,” she said.
She also said making sure families knew routines and expectations beforehand was a good move.
“We had each elementary school do a video of what a typical day would look like for students and sent that to our families so that they would know exactly what it was going to look like. And we’ll do that again in January just to remind everybody of the processes and procedures,” she said.
Another investment that paid off was hiring extra teaching staff at each school who were ready to take over should a teacher need to quarantine. That meant kids didn’t have to go home if their educator had to stay off campus.
Teachers in the district were largely assigned to teach either virtually or in-person, spokeswoman Melissa Perez said.
There were other lessons learned as well.
For instance, the district learned the hard way to make sure kids played only with their classmates during recess so cohorts weren’t mixing.
“That was a big one, was how we were going to manage those unstructured times,” Chenault said.
And they switched processes to limit staff’s movement through the school.
“For instance, if a child in a classroom of 15 kids was getting physical therapy, a physical therapist would go into the classroom and work with that student in their classroom with the other 15 kids,” she said. “And the physical therapist might do that to 10 classrooms in a week. If that physical therapist tested positive for COVID, all 10 of those classrooms would have to quarantine because they would have all been considered close contacts …. So, we’ve learned that we’ll just pull those students into a separate room with that physical therapist.”
Then, instead of 10 classes and their teachers that might have to quarantine, a quarantine might affect just the physical therapist and the 15 kids seen throughout the week, she said.
Chenault said that was the reason schools had to shut down previously, because one person who was positive had been in multiple classes.
Since starting hybrid learing in September, there were a total of 67 COVID-19 cases in the district as of the end of hybrid learning Nov. 20. That count doesn’t include virtual learners who haven’t been on campus.
There were also tweaks to what kids are learning.
“We’ve had to really reduce the amount of standards that our kids are covering in a school year to make sure that we can deliver strong content like really good instruction and maximize the time that we have,” Chenault said.
After all, the extra safety precautions eat up some of the learning time during the day.
The district wasn’t able to provide an academic comparison between students doing hybrid and students doing virtual learning.
But Perez said there’s been “similar level of engagement for both hybrid and virtual learners.”
Kids quickly adjusted
While the pandemic turned education on its head, students made it feel normal.
“I think that was really surprising, how well the kids took it all,” Chenault said, adding she wasn’t aware of students resisting the new rules.
They saw the fun in it, pretending to be an airplane in the hallway with their arms outstretched to measure their distance from others.
“The comfort level is the same. Kids are excited to be there. They’re still being silly. You know, they’re still laughing, they’re waving, they’re happy,” she said.
“It looks different, but it doesn’t feel different,” she added.
Chenault said she’s heard some kids are enjoying the extra attention in class now that class sizes are smaller or noticed more elbow room in the cafeteria.
The district thought masks would be a major issue for the younger students, but Chenault reported that hasn’t been the case.
If anything, the district ended up having a surplus inventory of masks because they haven’t had to hand out as many as expected.
“It’s the adults, I think, that have had a harder time with the changes but not the kids,” she said.
According to Chenault, some kids were sent to school when they were sick, but for the most part parents stuck to the rules.
Ready for the next time
Opening schools may have taken months of planning and preparation the first time around, but Chenault said now the district could open within a day if guidelines from the state stay the same.
And while it cost millions of dollars for technology, personal protective equipment and facility preparation, the bulk of the costs have already been incurred and reopening won’t be such a financial hit, she said.
“It’s a lot of work, but don’t let that cloud doing it. I think you just have to jump in and do it and then make the changes as you need to, because if you keep waiting until it’s perfect, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
RRPS considers the hybrid model a success so far and is open to sharing it with other districts.
“We recognize that it is not a one size fits all, but we are happy to share what has worked for us. Understanding, of course, that there are many moving parts and constant changes that require districts to be flexible and adapt. We are always looking at ways in which we can improve, and certainly plan to take what we can from the last few weeks and create an even better system for when we reopen in January,” spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass wrote in a statement.