SANTA FE – Loosened restrictions on large-scale in-person learning programs in New Mexico public schools went into effect Monday after an 11-month ban, but few school districts were rushing to bring all students back into classrooms.
With a vaccine rollout barely reaching teachers, many are hesitant to re-enter classrooms, and schools are struggling to meet parents’ demands for in-person learning.
School administrators face other logistical hurdles such as a state requirement instituted two weeks ago requiring each school building to be inspected by a fire marshal.
On Monday, fire marshals scoured classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and the dining hall of Nina Otero Community School, which serves elementary students on Santa Fe’s south side.
The school plans to open its doors to about 60 of its 700 students on Feb. 22.
“There’s a waiting list,” said acting school principal Trish Gharrity, who worked with fire officials and contractors to prepare the building for its first wave of students.
Social distancing markers, pedestrian flow arrows and hygiene signage pepper the floors and walls. Plexiglass shields teachers’ desks, and hand sanitizer stations are scattered across the school. Entire floors are closed to students, with empty classrooms marked: “Stop: This room is not in use.”
Santa Fe Public Schools are working to match teacher volunteers with students who want to return to in-person learning. Seven of Nina Otero’s teachers have volunteered to return to school, about average for the district, where as of this week only 15% of teachers have raised their hands to come back in person.
“Even though the numbers of teachers are low, we will be able to serve more students than we did in the fall because of the various models we will be incorporating to serve the maximum number of students possible,” said Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García.
Other school districts such as West Las Vegas have decided not to return at all while the state’s largest district has ruled out a hybrid program with 50% of students allowed back. It’s still exploring expanding small groups of in-person learners.
All schools have been allowed to have some small in-person classes, with five students to a teacher for programs that involve special needs students and younger children who benefit even less from online instruction than their peers.
The loosening of restrictions is increasing in-person learning, especially for younger students.
Of the state’s 89 districts, 47 had elementary students back in hybrid mode Monday, including 30 that had not been in hybrid previously, and 41 had secondary schools in hybrid mode, according to Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson.
Albuquerque Public Schools serves about a quarter of the state’s students. After the school board chose to keep most students in remote leaning, its top administrator suggested there are silver linings.
“Students have grown accustomed to synchronous and asynchronous learning (they even know what that means!) Teachers are tapping into their creativity. Routines have been established, attendance is getting better, grades are improving,” Interim Superintendent Scott Elder wrote in an email to staff members last week, adding that “In the end, we want students back in school.”
But some schools are more desperate to get children in school, especially rural and Indigenous students who lagged their peers in access to computers and high-speed internet last year.
A consortium of those districts representing many students left out of virtual learning filed a lawsuit against the state, including Gallup McKinley County Schools in the state’s rural northwest, serving a large population of Navajo and other Indigenous students.
All schools in that district are scheduled to reopen in the 50% hybrid model on Tuesday, weeks ahead of many other large school districts in the state.
Last fall, the school led a group of rural districts to sue the Public Education Department over restrictions to in-person learning. Now, it’s moving forward with the in-person learning programs it wanted.
Also in the fall, a teachers union filed a lawsuit against it over requirements for staff members to work from school grounds, which they described as part of a “ war “ and shot back with a scathing open letter to staff members and state officials in response to COVID-19 safety complaints.
Gallup district leaders did not respond to messages left on Friday and Monday.
Republican lawmakers are bitter about the way Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has restricted school openings over the past year.
On Monday, a Senate Education Committee hearing served as a platform for those grievances as legislators considered a bill that would take some emergency health order authority away from the governor and give it to school boards.
“We need to start making the decisions with the child in mind,” said GOP Minority Whip Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, who criticized the slow rollout of vaccines that have reached only a handful of teachers.