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Lawmakers push to give school boards opening authority

Rio Rancho Elementary “hybrid learners” line up after climbing out of their school bus to have their temperatures checked as school officials remind them of social distancing practices. (Garry Herron/Rio Rancho Observer)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Republican and Democratic lawmakers are pursuing legislation that would give local school boards more of a say on opening to in-person learning, a move aimed at bringing more students back into classrooms.

The bill would be a shift from the approach to in-person learning taken during the COVID-19 pandemic by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

The proposal comes as a new study suggests there is significant public support for allowing school boards to make the call. The survey – commissioned by the Adelante Now Foundation and conducted by Research & Polling Inc. – found that 52% of the 500-person sample thought local school boards should be the decision-maker for when to reopen public schools for in-person learning. Thirty percent said state government leaders should decide.

“I think what families and teachers and administrators want people to know is that they know their district better,” Democratic Rep. Candie Sweetser, who is backing the bill, said in a phone interview Friday.

Among the 500 adults surveyed by Research & Polling, 313 were parents, grandparents and guardians.

“Parents are concerned about their kids possibly contracting or spreading the virus, but a larger group is concerned about their kids falling behind academically,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc.

Of the parents, grandparents and guardians surveyed, 71% said they were concerned about their student falling behind academically without in-person learning. Similarly, 72% said they were concerned about their student being affected socially or emotionally without in-person learning or extracurricular activities.

“Therefore, I’m not surprised that two-thirds of New Mexico residents prefer for this semester for the schools to reopen for in-person learning,” Sanderoff said.

The research showed 66% of the 500 adults who were surveyed would prefer in-person learning in the new semester – either with a mix of online (39%) or open completely (27%). Twenty-five percent preferred public schools to be closed to in-person schooling.

Schools shut down last March as the first cases of COVID-19 appeared. State officials created plans to allow more in-person learning, but infections spread so fast that most schools were ineligible to open, or chose not to. Nearly a year later, the vast majority of students haven’t set foot in a classroom.

The governor’s reopening plan was developed with input from health officials and a scientific modeling team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Multiple metrics of COVID-19 cases, positivity rates and testing rates are tracked, and each county is categorized as part of a color-coded system, with red being the most at risk. Sparsely populated Harding County is the only one of 33 to be classified as green.

GOP House Minority Leader Jim Townsend said the plan is to introduce the bill this week.

The measure calls for giving local school boards the authority to determine when and for how many days each week a school can offer in-person learning during a public health emergency, according to a draft copy reviewed by the Associated Press.

The bill also allows teachers and students to opt out of in-person learning, and teach or learn remotely.

Of the 500 people surveyed by Research & Polling, 56% felt the public health order should be amended to allow some in-person learning before the fall and 29% did not.

Some 45% of parents, grandparents and guardians surveyed were concerned about students contracting COVID-19 by returning to in-person learning. And 32% were not concerned.

That research had a maximum margin of error of approximately 4.4%.

Republican Sen. David Gallegos hopes the exceptions protecting teacher and student choice in the bill will help draw more bipartisan support.

“A lot of the time, it’s metro versus rural, and we’re trying to avoid that,” he said.

If passed, the bill would likely be vetoed by Lujan Grisham.

State officials have already carved out some exceptions for in-person learning, allowing K-3 and special education students to attend class in small groups.

Earlier this week, Lujan Grisham and her deputies teased a loosening of the restrictions that could undercut support in the Legislature for a bill that would take away their authority.

“We’re very hopeful that we will be able to expand eligibility for in-person learning services very soon. We know that this is a critical issue,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart told legislators Thursday.