Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
In some ways, Monday started like a typical school day. Parents at Cleveland Middle School ushered children out of cars and other students shuffled off buses as the assistant principal greeted everyone with a wave and presumably a smile under her face mask.
But Monday marked something bigger than a typical school day. It was the first time all Albuquerque Public Schools students who chose in-person learning were able to come back to campus full time since last school year.
But the inaugural day brought big challenges for some.
As students moved through school, they were sure to notice differences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as signs reminding them to wash their hands, water fountains unavailable fo and markers in the hallways directing traffic.
Their classes likely had fewer people, too. Some classrooms at Cleveland had one student per table as about half of the school’s nearly 600 students came back for in-person learning on Monday and the rest learned remotely.
The 2020-21 school year has been unlike any other, with learning taking place primarily online for APS. Though small face-to-face groups for some students had been allowed.
In part, that was because all schools weren’t initially allowed to open in New Mexico. Classes were held remotely until Sept. 8 and then a hybrid of in-person and online schooling was allowed for most elementaries. It wasn’t until February that all grades were able to open in hybrid.
After a great deal of discussion and debate about reopening APS schools, the state Public Education Department’s push for all campuses across the state to open fully for students who opt into in-person learning was the catalyst. According to state officials, as of last week, roughly one-third of school districts were open for full in-person learning.
Parents at Cleveland Middle School were eager to get their kids back into the classroom.
“I’m excited for (my daughter) to be able to come back to middle school and return to some normalcy,” said Catherine Jaramillo, mother of a sixth-grader.
Fellow parent Adriana Suvia said she was “over being a home-school teacher of sorts.”
That enthusiasm was shared by Superintendent Scott Elder.
“This feels so good,” he said. “This is awesome. It’s good to see the students again – it’s really good.”
Elder didn’t have a tally of how many students were returning to campus on Monday district-wide, but said it ranges from 90% of the student body at some schools to 40% at others.
“I think, this week, we’re really going to focus on building routines, and helping the students and the staff get comfortable,” Elder said.
The first day ended up bringing issues for many in-person learners trying to connect their devices to the internet at school. APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district is trying to find a fix, but the cause was unknown as of Monday night.
“We could not have anticipated this particular problem, and it may have happened if we were face-to-face or virtual,” she said in a statement.
This was a major hindrance, among others, that Ricardo Romero’s senior at Manzano High School faced on the first day back. It was enough for his daughter to want to stay home.
Romero said that his daughter’s learning was disrupted because of the internet failures and the main solution given to students was to use their cellphones as hotspots.
“We were excited for her to go back today … she gets to her first class, and the door’s locked and it’s empty,” Romero said.
He was told that the teacher was a high-risk employee and would be working from home initially. That meant his daughter learned online in a classroom, while a separate in-person lesson was being conducted by a different teacher.
“More than anything, I think they just became a distraction to the other kids,” he said.
The family also said one teacher wouldn’t wear a mask in class and encouraged others not to.
Armenta said the district “has consistently repeated the public health order that all students and all staff must wear masks at all times, except during meals.”
“From what we’ve seen firsthand or heard about, the excitement and joy experienced by those who returned to in-person learning today far outweighs the challenges experienced by some,” she said.
Transportation was expected to be an obstacle for reopening and the district had warned previously that there would not be full bus service. However, APS officials reported that all but three buses ran Monday, meaning an estimated 99% of routes were covered.
“We will continue to ask parents to drop their kids off,” Elder said, citing coronavirus mitigation efforts.
He added that simultaneously teaching students in the classroom and at home will be a “journey of discovery” in the coming days.
Keith Jeneski, a teacher at Cleveland, said he was glad that students have the opportunity to come back, but emphasized that some students have been successful with online learning.
On Monday, Jeneski was aiming to strike the balance that teachers across the district will be striving for – teaching some students via a computer, while attending to the kids in front of them.
“Expectations are going to be the same whether you are here or at home,” he told his students.