Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
To say it’s been an untraditional first semester for Santa Fe Public Schools would be putting it mildly.
In a year of unprecedented situations, one of the state’s largest school districts had to navigate remote learning for thousands of local students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought with it multiple challenges district officials had to contend with.
In her State of the Schools Address on Dec. 4, Superintendent Veronica Garcia painted a tenacious and optimistic picture of her district, which nears the completion of its first full semester teaching students in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
“It is a district and school community that in this crisis didn’t curse the darkness, didn’t light a candle, but lit a bonfire of opportunity,” Garcia said in her virtual broadcast.
The main successes she and other district officials have highlighted throughout the semester include the distribution of technology and free internet to students, and being able to maintain a stable learning environment.
But, as with nearly every district in the state, COVID-19 has brought with it a steep learning curve for administrators, teachers and students alike.
Even after receiving internet hot spots and small laptops for remote learning, some students still had trouble accessing learning services due to the lack of broadband in certain areas. The problem was exacerbated in parts of Santa Fe’s Southside, especially mobile home parks off Airport Road, where internet access can be limited at best.
“I think that’s been an issue across the state and across the country, with kids disengaging or having failing grades,” Garcia told the Journal earlier.
The district had said it was working with city officials to provide more internet access to areas lacking the service; free access to Wi-Fi has already been made available at some school sites and public libraries.
Failing grades in particular have been a point of focus for the district. Final grades will not be released for a few weeks, but first-quarter results saw 38% of students from 3rd-12th grade failing at least one course.
Board members and administrators have said lack of engagement with online learning could have been behind the spike.
That announcement came within days of the district starting up its new hybrid learning program, where a small number of elementary-age students could attend in-person classes on certain days of the week. That number was dictated by how many teachers and staff members volunteered to work in person.
Garcia said in-person learning, while not the same as a typical school year, had its successes and had started improving the well-being of some students.
“They were so excited about coming to school,” she said. “Just the pure joy of children being back in school and the joy the teachers felt being back in school with them.”
However, although there were no recorded cases, the district was forced to cancel its hybrid learning model after only three weeks as the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Santa Fe County and elsewhere surged.
When asked about the possibility of hybrid learning returning next semester, Garcia said she was hopeful, but “not optimistic.”
“If we have another surge, as they are predicting, it doesn’t look too positive for January,” she said.
She added that the second half of the semester is the most likely, but only if cases in Santa Fe County decline enough for the state Education Department to allow that to happen.
But, for now, Santa Fe’s first entirely virtual semester may very well not be its last.