In-person learning allowed to resume Feb. 8; local districts unsure of plans

In-person learning allowed to resume Feb. 8; local districts unsure of plans

From the Las Vegas Optic

By Phil Scherer and Ryan Lowery

Local school districts remain unsure whether they will return to the classroom in early February, following Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s announcement Tuesday that districts would have the option to return to the classroom during her annual State of the State address.

Most schools have been closed across the state since mid-March 2020, when COVID-19 first struck New Mexico. Though some elementary schools around the state temporarily opted to go to a hybrid model last semester, schools in San Miguel and Mora counties have operated remotely for more than 10 months.

As of Feb. 8, school districts across the state will have the option to open all of their schools in a hybrid model, with 50 percent of a school’s population allowed in the classroom at a time.

“We will get this right, and we will move forward, and every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on Feb. 8,” Lujan Grisham said.

No school district is required to return to in-person learning at this time. The decision will be left up to each individual school district.

In order to return to the classroom, school districts in counties with “red” level restrictions, meaning the county’s COVID-19 testing positivity rate is above 5 percent and there are more than eight cases per 100,000 residents, will be required to test 25 percent of its in-person staff each week. Counties with “yellow” or “green” level restrictions will be required to test 12.5 percent of its staff each week.

Districts will also have to consent to an onsite visit by state officials to certify readiness to open safely and must also continue to enforce COVID-safe practices, which include mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent cleaning.

To limit exposure to others and maintain social distance, all meals will be served in the classroom. If it is impractical to do so, the Public Education Department recommends that meal times be staggered and students sit at least six feet from each other, with all students on the same side of tables in the cafeteria.

Even if a district chooses to return to the classroom using the hybrid model, each family will still have the option to continue with remote learning for their children.

 

Local response

The school districts in San Miguel and Mora counties remain unsure when their schools will return to the classroom following Tuesday’s announcement.

According to Mora Independent School District Superintendent Marvin MacAuley, the plan remains a “work in progress.”

“It’s not that we don’t appreciate the opportunity to open schools, it’s just going to take some work,” MacAuley told the Optic.

MacAuley said the district did not know the state had any reopening plans until the governor’s Tuesday announcement, and that the New Mexico Public Education Department didn’t provide written notice until around 7 p.m. Tuesday, which didn’t give district officials much time to coordinate a plan to return to in-person learning.

He said the district has plans to speak directly to PED officials, which will help them form a plan to return to the classroom safely. Once the plan is finalized, Mac Auley said the district will notify the community, and will send surveys to enrolled students to help gauge how many plan to return to in-person instruction under a hybrid model.

Pecos School District Superintendent Debra Sena-Holton told the Optic the district remains unsure of its plans, with a special board meeting planned for sometime next week to discuss the situation.

Sena-Holton said that previously, the decision about whether to return to the classroom was left in the hands of the school board, but that the district is now considering “other factors” to make the decision, though she did not elaborate.

Marsha Archuleta, the executive assistant in the Office of the Superintendent at Las Vegas City Schools, said the district is still determining its plans.

She said a survey has been sent to families to determine their feelings on returning to the classroom, and a special bord meeting will be held next week to determine plans.

“We should have that announcement shortly,” Archuleta told the Optic.

Representatives from West Las Vegas School District did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of this writing.

 

A return to sports

In addition to the return to the classroom, state officials also said high school sports could resume as early as Feb. 22, assuming the return to in-person learning does not lead to a large spike in COVID-19 cases.

The New Mexico Activities Association Board of Directors held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the Public Education Department’s announcement. At the meeting, the NMAA Board said it fully supports the plan to return to competition, but tabled the adoption of a modified sports calendar so that superintendents can seek further clarification from PED regarding how these policies may impact each school’s ability to participate in NMAA sanctioned competitions.

“The NMAA is still very excited that our students will be able to return to the sports and activities that they love next month,” NMAA Director Sally Marquez said. “We understand, however, that in order to make the best decision for the kids of New Mexico, superintendents would like clarification from the Public Education Department regarding several topics still needing resolution.”

PED made it clear that schools must return to the classroom in a hybrid model before they will be allowed to compete in NMAA sanctioned sporting events.

Mora Superintendent MacAuley said that the ability to play sports will play a factor in the district’s decision to return to school.

“It’s a weird position they put us in,” MacAuley told the Optic. “It kind of paints us into a corner as to what we need to do, because we do want our kids to play sports.”

The NMAA Board will hold another special meeting on Monday, Feb. 1, to revisit the proposed calendar, which still includes seasons for all sports.

 

Vaccinations 

While New Mexico’s teacher’s union signed off on the plan to allow in-person education to resume, they maintain that teachers should have the option to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.

Though some teachers, particularly those in larger areas around the state, have been able to get some staff members vaccinated, the vast majority remain unable to get the vaccine.

Earlier this week, the New Mexico Department of Health said the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has gone slower than originally anticipated due to a lack of supply from the federal government to keep up with the demand, and it could be several months before everyone currently eligible to receive the vaccine is able to.

“None of you — no educator, no school worker — should ever have to choose between your health and the students you serve,” Lujan Grisham said in her State of the State address.

PED made it clear, however, that it will not require school staff members to be vaccinated to teach in the classroom.