APS board puts off decision on school reopenings - Albuquerque Journal

APS board puts off decision on school reopenings

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The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education talked for hours Wednesday night about how the district could move forward with school reopenings, before ultimately tabling the item with plans to revisit it at a coming meeting.

Interim Superintendent Scott Elder had presented a plan that would have allowed kids to return in phases starting Feb. 22, but that wasn’t approved.

Instead, he’ll return to the board with a different route – that will likely focus on small groups of students – that would allow some kids to return to the classroom.

“I understand that (the members of the Board of Education) are not anxious at this point to return the majority of the staff without vaccines, so the parents that think all teachers are coming back, (that’s) not going to happen,” he said.

In New Mexico, K-12 school employees are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine now unless they are in another priority subgroup, according to the state Department of Health.

The Albuquerque Teachers Federation union – which represents roughly 6,000 licensed school employees, including teachers, and has a little over 4,000 dues-paying members – called for in-person learning to be voluntary for staff until vaccines are widely available.

“We don’t want to keep anybody from starting in-person schooling if they’re ready to start, but there are a large number of people … who feel that the plan the board had approved where Bernalillo County would be in green for two weeks was a good plan,” ATF President Ellen Bernstein told the Journal. “They also feel like vaccinations are on the near horizon, and that matters.”

The Health Department considers a county to be “green,” or at medium risk, if it has a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 5% or less and fewer than eight new cases a day per 100,000 residents.

The APS Board of Education had a plan in place to wait until Bernalillo County met those Department of Health criteria before starting the reopening process. But reopening schools went before the board again after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in-person learning could expand in New Mexico, allowing more classes to open as early as Monday.

The union’s slogan, “Green or vaccine – whichever comes first,” was a recurring theme during a hybrid protest at APS’ main offices Wednesday.

Robert Feuer, a teacher at Highland High School, said he helped organize the protest because “we want to let the board know that we are not ready (to go back to the classroom).”

Feuer, who has asthma and wants to keep teaching remotely, said his colleagues have threatened to retire, use sick leave or even refuse to return if in-person learning resumes before they are ready.

Washington Middle School teacher Allison Hawks said facilities are not ready for teachers and students, despite the district’s assurances, and she doesn’t feel it is safe for schools to reopen.

Meanwhile, counterprotesters also made their voices heard, calling for schools to be reopened, especially at the high school level, flagging mental health concerns, among others.

The debate on reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the 2020-21 school year – both across the state and on a national level.

In APS, most students haven’t been taught in person since this time last year.

Taylor Christiansen, Cibola High School student body president, rallied for schools to open, saying the majority of her fellow students want to go back and need the multiple supports face-to-face schooling offers.

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