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More NM students back in school for in-person learning

Markers on the floor in the lunchroom are intended to help kids socially distance at El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe in October. ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As of Monday, more students in New Mexico were able to get back into the classroom with new direction from the state. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As of Monday, more students in New Mexico were able to get back into the classroom, giving some middle and high school students the chance to learn at school for the first time in almost 11 months.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently cleared the way for face-to-face schooling at all grade levels across the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the decision up to school boards and charter school leaders as long as they met safety requirements.

Three in-person options were given to schools, including a hybrid of in-person and online learning that allows up to 50% of students back to school at a time.

According to state Public Education Department counts that do not include charter schools, 30 school districts welcomed students back to elementaries in a hybrid model for the first time this school year, contributing to a total of 47 districts currently open for hybrid at elementary schools. And 41 of the state’s 89 districts had secondary students on campus through that mixed learning approach.

But opening was not mandated and Albuquerque Public Schools and Santa Fe Public Schools are among the districts that are teaching virtually for now despite the governor’s recent action.

Hobbs Superintendent T.J. Parks said Monday was the first day many students in the district would be back in classrooms since March 2020, when the pandemic hit New Mexico.

He also said Hobbs has seen an enrollment drop of about 900 students, as many families have either permanently or temporarily relocated to Texas in order to go to school in person and play sports.

“I believe that families who live in poverty have suffered the greatest lack of learning,” Parks said.

He was testifying in support of a bill that would allow school boards to determine whether to reopen schools during a public health emergency — including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But that stalled Monday in a Senate committee on a tie vote.

The legislation, Senate Bill 171, has drawn bipartisan support from lawmakers who believe local school leaders should have more say in reopening decisions.

“What happens in Eunice is not the same as what happens in Albuquerque and other parts of the state,” said Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice.

But critics of the bill defended Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic.

“I do not think local school boards should have the power to override the public health orders our governor and the Department of Health put in place,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill ultimately failed to advance out of the committee on a 4-4 vote, with Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, a physician, voting in favor of it along with the panel’s three Republican members. The other four Democrats on the committee voted against advancing the legislation.

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