BELEN—The Belen Board of Education unanimously approved target dates for Belen Consolidated Schools students to return to in-person, hybrid learning in March at Tuesday evenings’s board meeting.

BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez recommended elementary students return to hybrid learning on Monday, March 1, while secondary students — at the middle school and district’s two high schools — return on Monday, March 22, after spring break.

Sanchez said the teachers returning to the classroom were doing so voluntarily, and those who wished to continue teaching remotely would be able to do so.

BCS began this school year in September in the hybrid model, with students split 50/50 between in-person learning at school sites and remote learning.

Middle school and high school students were supposed to be phased in but when the number of positive COVID-19 cases spiked in November around the state, the district shifted to a full remote model.

During her State of the State address last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced districts could decide whether to return to the hybrid model or not starting Feb. 8, and tied participation in prep sports to being in the hybrid model.

The last day of school for BCS is scheduled for June 10, giving students about nine weeks of in-person learning.

Sanchez recommended secondary students be brought back in small groups to begin with, targeting those with individual education plans, English language learners and at-risk students.

Board member Jim Danner said he would vote for the motion to return to hybrid, but wanted to see a written plan for each school.

“If not, we’re saying, ‘Mr. Sanchez, do what you want and it’s out of our purview,” Danner said, “and I don’t agree with that.”

Sanchez said his goal was to have a written plan for each elementary site by the next board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23, and an update on the secondary plans.

During his report to the board, the superintendent said of the 285 teachers and educational assistants in the district, 127 were willing to return to the classroom, while 74 were willing to return after vaccinations were given, and 84 wanted to remain in remote teaching.

“I have to give a shout out to our union reps for both certified and classified employees. I can’t stress enough how willing they’ve been to collaborate with us,” Sanchez said. “This is a long-term process. We value the relationship we have with our teachers, unions and staff members. We don’t want to damage those relationships.”

During a board workshop last week, one of the biggest questions and concerns raised was the district’s ability to meet PED’s air filtration standards to open for in-person learning.

The board unanimously approved the purchase of 350 portable HEPA filter units with replacement packs. Each unit costs about $550, and district maintenance supervisor Antonio Sedillo said at the elementary schools, each classroom would need two units, based on the sizes and PED’s requirements for air turnover.

Sanchez said the units would be ordered Wednesday morning and expected delivery in five to seven days.

“We’ve made the classrooms that will be used by teachers returning the top priority,” Sanchez said.

He also added some teachers might not return to their usual classrooms but instead be in rooms that had better ventilation options with windows and doors that open to the outside.

Sedillo said while the 350 units would be enough to cover the classrooms for in-person learning, he still had questions about how the district was expected to handle large spaces, such as gymnasiums.

He also pointed out the PED toolkit only had requirements for classrooms, not areas like the front office spaces.

“Nobody really said you have to have this in those spaces,” he said. “We are using every available piece of machinery to make these places safe and to have clean air.”

Sedillo said the HEPA scrubber units run on 110 volts, so the electrical systems at the school sites would be able to handle the load, but the district could expect to see an increase in its electric costs.

The PED is requiring districts install air circulation units that will do three exchanges of the air in a room.

Board vice president Aubrey Tucker said he wanted spaces such as band and chorus rooms included as well.

“We have people talking about athletics and we have to remember band, choir, drama and art are all aspects of the whole education package that matters,” Tucker said.

Sedillo said the district was trying to meet the PED safety requirements and would “exhaust every effort” to make sure all learning spaces were included.

Because students will still be in remote learning at least three days a week, the board also approved the purchase of 880 Dell laptops, using $499,887 in CARES Act money and $37,753 from federal Title I funds, and 440 10.2-inch, 32 gig iPads with $166,298 of Title I monies.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.