Back to the classroom again for some New Mexico students - Albuquerque Journal

Back to the classroom again for some New Mexico students

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Classrooms in some schools in the state can reopen starting Monday, allowing those students face-to-face learning for the first time this semester.

In-person schooling was temporarily suspended by the state earlier this month for two weeks after the winter holidays to try to prevent a feared increase in COVID-19 cases. While small groups of students with disabilities were still allowed, schools that had been offering other in-person classes had to shut their doors and teach remotely during that time.

Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart called it a prudent measure.

“We are, by doing it, positioning ourselves to be better able to expand in-person learning hopefully here in the near future,” he said.

In the meantime, schools are now able to restart the schedules they had in place before the pause, including schools that had a mix of in-person and remote lessons.

Stewart said there are robust precautions required of schools to create “an environment where students and educators can come safely back.”

PED was unable to provide the Journal with a count of how many schools in the state will be reopening in-person classes.

Previously, about 60 public schools had been doing hybrid learning and four districts with 100 students or fewer were given the OK to do full, in-person learning in groupings of five students per teacher, according to PED documents.

‘Ready to get back’

Corona Public Schools is among those few districts able to have all grades back on campus, because there are only 60 K-12 students. The district is about 100 miles southeast of Albuquerque.

Travis Lightfoot, superintendent of the district, was eager to get back to campus Monday, both as an administrator and as a father. “I’m ready to get back and get the kids back. … I miss the kids,” he said.

During the two-week pause, Lightfoot – like so many other parents in the state – juggled working from home and helping his own daughters with their schoolwork.

His wife, a special education teacher in the district, worked from school to offer instruction to a few kids during the shutdown. So, Lightfoot took on the at-home learning, which he admits is difficult even for a superintendent.

“It’s just as hard as any other parent,” he said. “I’ve taught many subjects and substituted for many different content areas and grade levels throughout my (22) years as superintendent, but teaching my own children is a bit of a different situation,” he said.

After doing remote learning earlier in the school year, the overwhelming majority of Corona Public Schools families said they wanted to get back on campus and this time around is no different – even for Lightfoot’s daughters.

“My kids are tired of their dad being their teacher,” he said.

Precautions, virus fear

Some schools, including in Rio Rancho Public Schools, will be returning on Tuesday because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday.

Like Lightfoot, first grade teacher Billie Helean at Stapleton Elementary in Rio Rancho said she’s ready to get back to the hybrid model. But she has mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, she is excited. Teaching fully online is much more taxing, she said, and she prefers teaching the way she intended to when she got her degree – at the front of the classroom.

On the other hand, she said, it’s exhausting having to be constantly aware of the precautions, and there’s fear about catching the virus.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of schools in the state are still doing remote learning or offering small group lessons only for younger students or students in special education.

APS staying remote

Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education made the call late last year to continue remote learning for all students until Bernalillo County is in the green status, meaning it’s reached public health thresholds, for two weeks, which the county hasn’t done per the latest state Department of Health data. The district’s announcement said remote learning would continue until at least this week but it’s looking like it’ll be much longer than that as Bernalillo County isn’t close to meeting the standards.

DOH says counties in the green need to have “a new COVID-19 case incidence rate of no greater than eight cases per 100,000 inhabitants during the most recent two-week period, and an average percent of positive COVID-19 test results over the most recent 14-day period less than or equal to 5%.”

Monica Armenta, a spokeswoman for APS, said special education small groups are still planned to continue this week.

The APS strategy aligns with PED guidance that says additional elementary schools cannot initiate hybrid mode until the district’s county meets the green requirements. Meanwhile, a target opening date for middle and high schools has not been set, according to PED.

Vaccines and hope

“The district is hopeful the infection rate will begin to drop now that the holiday season has passed. Our greatest hope is the declining infection rate and introduction of the coronavirus vaccine will significantly minimize the risk of in-person learning so schools can reopen,” Armenta wrote in a comment to the Journal.

DOH announced this month that school employees who can’t work remotely are among the next in line to get the vaccine. But that update isn’t loosening any school requirements or expediting timelines for now.

“We don’t have a threshold for vaccination tied to any of the school reopening eligibility decisions,” Stewart said.

However, it’s making PED officials optimistic as they look at ways to expand school openings.

“I think that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel,” Stewart said.

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