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NM weighs longer school year to offset ‘learning loss’

Posters in the restroom at El Camino Real Academy remind students to wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as shown in this Oct. 7 file photo. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Even before schools reopen, New Mexico lawmakers are mapping out how to help students catch up next year after a lack of in-person learning over the past 10 months.

One possibility began moving through the Capitol on Wednesday — a $139 million plan requiring schools to extend the next academic year by either 10 or 25 days, depending on which program they opt into and the age of the students.

Teachers would be paid for the extra work, and districts would decide when to add the days.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said it’s critical to give students more instructional time — a strategy with a proven record, she said, of boosting academic achievement.

“This bill is designed to be as flexible as possible,” Stewart told a committee hearing Wednesday, but “we have to deal with learning loss.”

Her proposal, Senate Bill 40, divided school districts and boards — some of whom said the state should let local educators decide whether to extend the school year. At least one teachers union also raised concern about the legislation.

“We just continually mandate everything from Santa Fe,” said Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho. “We just continue to take away local control.”

The proposal, he said, might lead to teachers leaving the state.

Senate Bill 40, nonetheless, picked up bipartisan support and advanced past the Senate Education Committee on a 7-1 vote. It heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.

The legislation would require public schools, including charter schools, to provide either the K-5 Plus program — which calls for elementary schools to add 25 days to the school year — or participate in extended learning time programs, which add 10 days and require after-school programming and 80 hours of professional development for teachers.

“We think those two programs are evidence-based — have really proven themselves,” Stewart said.

Elementary schools could choose either option. Other schools would have to participate in extended learning time.

There’s one exception: The requirement wouldn’t apply if in-person learning is prohibited either because of a statewide executive order or a local resolution.

“This bill really looks at students and getting them back in person and getting them more instruction,” Stewart said.

Paying for the extra time would come out of a school reform fund. Teachers’ take-home pay increases about 14% when they participate in K-5 Plus and about 6% for extended learning time programs, according to state estimates.

The proposal drew support from school districts in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces, although some of them also suggested making the requirement more flexible by allowing districts to add extra time to each day rather than extend the school year.

Other district officials said flatly that the whole program should be optional. Local educators know best how to meet the needs of their communities, they said, and some parents and teachers object to changing the school calendar.

“The mandate runs afoul of our guiding principle — our platform that calls for local decision-making,” said Dennis Roch, superintendent of Logan schools and president of the state superintendents association.

He is a former state representative, a Republican who served for 10 years, through 2018.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, supported the bill Wednesday but said she wants to address some questions before final passage. She feared the proposal would have the effect of penalizing districts that return to in-person learning, and some districts, she said, may already have enacted longer school years.

“I’m really torn on this bill,” Kernan said.

In a report to lawmakers, legislative analysts said most research shows students will begin next school year behind because of pandemic-related disruptions to their classroom learning since March.

A report by McKinsey & Co. found that students may lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year, with students of color disproportionately harmed, perhaps losing as much as 12 months of learning, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Reports issued by the LFC last year also found that New Mexico’s “middle and high school students were failing remote classes at high rates, teachers could not find or reach approximately one in five students, and social isolation posed serious mental health risk to students and families.”

The state also faces litigation over the qualify of its schools. In 2018, a state district judge ruled that New Mexico was violating the constitutional rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.

New Mexico students remained behind national proficiency rates in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2019.

Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, an education advocacy group, told lawmakers that it’s essential to increase students’ time in the classroom. She testified in favor of the bill.

“After the year we’ve had,” Aragon said, “we are going to have to look at pretty remarkable plans to get out of the learning loss we experienced this year.”

The requirements in Senate Bill 40 would be temporary, applying only to the 2021-22 school year.

The $139 million in funding for K-5 Plus and extending learning time would flow to schools through the state’s education funding formula.


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