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APS board to take up reopening plans again

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A now hiring drivers sign is seen while school buses sit idle at the Albuquerque Public Schools transportation center on Menaul NE. APS leaders are pondering whether to allow more students back in the classroom. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

A million masks, check.

Two hundred bus drivers ready to transport students back to their schools, check.

School safety inspections, nearly there as of Monday.

Interim Chief Operations Officer Gabriella Blakey said Albuquerque Public Schools employees are preparing for schools to reopen. But whether any more students will go back to school and in what capacity hinges on a vote by the board.

Tonight, the APS Board of Education is scheduled to once again take up the decision on opening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic — one of the biggest topics across the country right now.

The meeting agenda calls for members to vote on an in-person learning plan. The board meeting will take place virtually at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The link to watch is at APS.edu.

An administrative proposal posted online Tuesday outlines the possibility of a voluntary return to campus for teachers and some students, although it makes clear that a “supermajority of teachers are not ready” to return to the classroom just yet. It also says that while roughly half of parents want their children back at school, the other half are not ready.

The proposed option in the presentation is creating in-person small groups for some students, such as those who need it most, in addition to remote learning.

The proposal suggests the students who are assigned to these groups could go to school on designated days based on their last name.

The proposal also pitches ramping up hybrid instruction if Bernalillo County gets to a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 5% or less and fewer than eight new cases a day per 100,000 residents.

The proposal’s chances of approval aren’t clear. At the board meeting earlier this month, members didn’t approve the administration’s plan.

Citing recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, The New York Times reported that “elementary students can receive at least some in-person instruction safely, even at high levels of community transmission, and that middle and high school students can attend school safely at lower levels of community transmission” with the right safety measures. That guidance doesn’t make educator vaccinations a prerequisite, according to the Times.

At the beginning of the month, board members were presented with a strategy to phase in a hybrid model, which mixes in-person and remote learning. But they ended up tabling the item after a lengthy discussion on logistics, vaccines for employees and safety, telling APS higher-ups to come back with more information, including options for targeted small-group learning face to face.

90% of schools get nod

As of Monday, about 90% of APS’ more than 140 schools had been visited and given the OK to reopen by a fire marshal, according to Blakey. She said the rest should be wrapped up by the end of the week.

The walk-through inspections make sure doors and windows are working, classrooms and common areas are set up for people to stay 6 feet apart and there’s a designated room for students who show COVID symptoms, among other checklist items. Blakey said no schools have failed an inspection.

The inspections also target ventilation and air filtration.

Depending on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning situation at a school, mitigation efforts in APS vary from the high-tech — using ultraviolet light technology for air purification in classrooms with radiant heat systems — to the low-tech, such as cracking windows and doors. Dampers are also being taken out of HVAC units to increase airflow into schools, and filters are being used where they can, mostly in portable buildings.

“What’s the most important is getting airflow in the classrooms,” Blakey said, pointing to the CDC guidelines. “… So a lot of the recommendations are opening doors and windows, opening the dampers, anything that helps with airflow.”

Blakey said that when she saw the latest CDC guidelines, she was encouraged that the district is “along the right planning stages.”

She said that if parents want a school-by-school breakdown to see what their child’s class is equipped with, they should go to the principal.

Blakey also said that doors and windows would stay closed during inclement weather but that in general, teachers are encouraged to open them.

“The more we can get to spring and summer, the better condition we are in as far as being able to have fresh air coming through classrooms, or even being able to have kids, you know, working outside,” she said.

Buses and drivers

Blakey said the district has a little more than 200 bus drivers available to transport kids right away. But the rest are contracted out, and the district is waiting until the board makes a decision on reopening before it brings any of them back.

“At this point, we haven’t given the green light to our contractors, because we don’t have a start date for school,” she said.

She said the vehicles are ready to go, equipped with cleaning protocols. It’s the personnel that makes transportation a hurdle.

New rules for cafeterias

If students were to come back to school for a whole day, there would be lunch breaks and recesses but with a twist.

Blakey said elementary students would eat with their classes and sit 6 feet apart. And cafeterias are set up for students to eat facing forward in an effort to mitigate germ transmission.

Similarly, classes would stay grouped together for recess and playground equipment would be cleaned after use.

For secondary students, Blakey said each school is setting up its own procedures for lunch on campus — should that time come — and the plans will entail designated eating areas, social distancing measures and guidance for kids to face forward while they eat or eat outside.

Should classes end up being half a day, Blakey envisions grab-and-go meals before kids head home.

She noted that reopening decisions aren’t just about the schoolhouse — there are instructional, health and other considerations, too.

“We have done hundreds and hundreds of work orders to have the buildings ready. We have water stations, we have signs, we have a million masks — like, literally, we have a million masks; we have all the PPE and all of those things,” Blakey said. “But we can’t control is what the community spread is (and) how human behavior is coming back on campus. … Some of those concerns are much more difficult to proceed with than getting a physical structure ready.”



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