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SFPS is getting some students back in the classroom

Santa Fe Public School Superintendent Veronica Garcia gives her State of the Schools Address during an event held at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center in Santa Fe Wednesday December 4, 2019. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s back to school time in Santa Fe, sort of.

Come Monday, Santa Fe Public Schools will be re-opening in-person classes in a hybrid model. Students will be at school two days a week; learning will remain in COVID-19-era online remote mode for the other three days.

It’s a voluntary program — both students and teachers can decide whether to return to in-person learning or stay at home and continue with online classes only.

Under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s late-January announcement that schools can re-open under the hybrid model, no more than 50% of a school population can return at the same time. State Public Education Department reentry guidelines mandate COVID safety practices, such as masks and social distancing, testing and cleaning. Students can be kept within specific “cohorts” — for example, one cohort can be at school on Monday and Tuesday, and another can attend on Thursday and Friday.

It’s going to be a small reopening at SFPS. Superintendent Veronica Garcia said late last week that 1,774 students, out of a total district student population of about 12,500, will be back at school.

There is no waiting list for in-person classes at the high-school level. Garcia said 465 students are coming back at Capital High, along with 28 staff members, and 295 students will return at Santa Fe High, with 55 staffers. All told, 290 district school staff members volunteered to return, some of whom will be helping students in “cyber cafés” where, among other things, they can continue their online classes with teachers who’ve chosen to stay home for now.

About 1,990 students are on waiting lists at the lower grade-level schools. Only one staff member each is coming back at two elementary schools — Tesuque (with four returning students) and Salazar (with 15 students). Other elementary schools will have just two or three staffers on site, but Atalaya Elementary will have 26 for 145 returning students.

Garcia said she was shocked more students aren’t returning or trying to get back. She said some families want to wait for vaccinations, or they have children who have connected with teachers who will remain in remote learning, or their children couldn’t be in the same cohort as friends.

The situation is fluid, Garcia notes. All teachers, except those with medical issues, will be expected back once they’ve had a chance to get vaccinations.

None of this is perfect. The world needs to have more kids getting back into the classroom. Students are falling behind, failure rates are way up and there’s growing concern about mental health impacts on kids who can’t get back to school.

Parents continue to have to somehow balance jobs and care-giving when their children can’t go to school, and many in retail and service industries can’t work remotely.

There’s mounting scientific evidence, based on studies around the country and abroad, that in-school populations don’t increase community spread from COVID, particularly when masking, distancing and limiting class sizes are imposed.

“Based on the data available, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission,” recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

But the CDC guidance also states that schools should fully reopen, for all five weekdays, only in counties with low or moderate levels of transmission — fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days. Santa Fe County’s infection numbers are dropping dramatically. The county, with a population of about 150,000, had 74 cases over seven days through Wednesday, which appears to meet the CDC’s per-capita standard for a full in-person school week.

Many teachers, with support from their unions, have balked at returning to the classroom before they have been vaccinated. That’s understandable considering the huge death toll from the pandemic and the prospect of spending hours inside with students.

And, so far, New Mexico has grouped teachers below others when it comes to vaccine priority.

But the science — always follow the science, right? — is trending toward the idea that schools can be safe, or at least as safe as the community at large, even without the vaccinations.

Still, why not vaccinate teachers? Along with other essential workers, such as grocery store employees, they are stuck behind people 75 and older, and those with serious medical conditions in New Mexico’s vaccination waiting line.

New Mexico has roughly 22,000 public school teachers and some already are eligible for vaccinations due to age or medical conditions. If the state made, say, 18,000 vaccinations available for teachers in the near term, that would amount to much less than 5% of all the shots administered in New Mexico as of last week.

And these would be value-added vaccinations. More teachers would be willing to return to the classroom, benefiting students facing diminished educational opportunities and socialization during the pandemic. Parents of those students, including other essential workers who can’t work from home and have had to somehow cover for child care and helping their kids with remote learning, would get a break and feel better about sending children back to school.

Politically, moving teachers up in the vaccination line may be seen as caving to teachers’ unions. But the potential gains outweigh that sore spot.

Santa Fe Public Schools seems to have come up with a good plan for opening in the hybrid model allowed by the governor. If the COVID trends continue to improve, it may soon be time for state government, teachers, parents and local school districts, such as SFPS, to make the big leap toward getting students back in the classroom for a full school week.

But like just about everything in America these days, that depends on the coronavirus and trying to get people with different points of view to come together. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell which problem is the more intractable.

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