Following what he calls the “innovative practices” of a neighboring school district, Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez says if the district is able to clear just a few more hurdles, Belen High School students could be in hybrid learning as early as Monday, March 8 — two weeks prior to the district’s target date of March 22.

“I will be very, very, painfully clear that this is all based on the (state Public Education Department’s) approval of the (hybrid) plan and the (school) site visit approval,” Sanchez said.

The superintendent submitted the district’s plan for its secondary hybrid model to PED early Friday morning. On Thursday, he reached out to the Belen Fire Department to move up the scheduled site visit for Belen High School to do the necessary walk-through of the campus.

“The site visit is scheduled for 10 a.m., Monday, March 8, and we want to start bringing kids back at 1 p.m.,” he said. “It’s a tight window and we recognize that.”

In conversations with Michael Grossman, PED’s point of contact for the district as it shifts to hybrid, Sanchez said he’s been assured by Grossman that if the fire department signs off on the site, he will issue approval immediately.

BHS students will be back in hybrid for a week, then off for spring break from March 15-19, then on March 22, Infinity High School and Belen Middle School will enter the hybrid model.

“We saw some of the innovative practices (Albuquerque Public Schools) is employing and knew we owed it to our students to try and do the same thing,” Sanchez said.

According to what he’s read, the method APS is using to get students back in the classroom on March 8 is small groups by invitation, the superintendent said.

“The ability to bring in small groups, which hadn’t been part of the guidance given to us by the PED, is being allowed,” he said. “When you look at the language the news reports used, PED and APS reached an agreement.

“So that sounds to me like APS went to them and said, ‘This is our plan,’ and (PED) agreed. If it can change for one, you have to change for all. That was the impetus.”

On March 3, the APS Board of Education voted unanimously to transition to hybrid once Bernalillo County was in the green category on the state’s COVID-19 tiered risk assessment system. The next time the categories are updated is Wednesday, March 10.

In it’s March 3 edition, the Albuquerque Journal reported APS Interim Superintendent Scott Elder indicated after county designations are announced and Bernalillo County was green, teachers would have a week to prepare on site. Students would start going back to school the following week.

However, in that same issue, it was reported that APS fall sports teams could work out in pods from March 8-22, and then begin full practices on March 22.

Once students begin hybrid learning, small group athletic practices, which have been allowed since October, continue for two weeks after reopening. At that point, if no COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred, full-team practices and competition may resume under the guidelines set by PED and the New Mexico Activities Association.

When asked via email how APS could begin hybrid learning on March 8 if the county designations wouldn’t be announced until March 10, PED Deputy Communications Director Judy Robinson responded, “I guess I’d have to say it’s a rapidly moving world. Other than that, I can only repeat that APS has assured PED that it will be in the hybrid mode effective Monday, March 8, and we have every reason to believe that will happen.”

After APS received approval from the department for its small-group, in-person learning model, Sanchez met with Belen NEA’s executive team on Thursday to present BCS’s secondary hybrid model and accelerated re-entry timeline.

“We presented the plan and they gave us their blessing,” Sanchez said.

The first week back for BHS students will be a lot of re-acclimation, with remote learning in the mornings, combined with information on topics such as how to get their temperature checked and how to get breakfast in the mornings.

“We’re going to take time in the virtual environment to do that and in the afternoons, students who want to can be on campus in small groups,” Sanchez said.

For the week of March 8-12, there will be four periods of virtual learning from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at BHS. In the afternoons, there will be re-acclimation events to help students practice for the full hybrid model beginning Monday, March 22.

BHS Principal Eliseo Aguirre said the re-acclimation time is important for all students but especially freshmen.

During the afternoon re-acclimation activities, there will be information about student schedules, daily procedures and COVID Safe Protocol for both students and staff; as well as campus tours and grade level class meetings. There will also be class meetings, campus tours and directions on what is expected of students when they are on campus.

When students and families are on campus for the re-acclimation week, everyone must have their temperature checked, face masks must be worn, social distancing must be adhered to, travel will be only on the right side of the hallways and there will be no sharing of food or drinks and no grouping of students.

On March 22, all secondary schedules will return to normal. Parents should contact their student’s individual school with questions about schedules, cohorts and transportation.

“We will try to get information out as quick as we can, but we never know when something is going to change and that’s the frustrating part. One thing about all this is we’ve become very adaptable,” Sanchez said. “We appreciate everybody — all our teachers, our students, our parents — for being able to adapt with us.”

BHS Principal Elisio Aguirre and BCS Athletic Coordinator Steve Contreras are reaching out to parents via email to let them know about the new timeline, he said.

“We’re being very specific in our language and letting them know this is dependent on the approval of the plan and the site visitation,” Sanchez said. “I feel very confident the PED will approve our plan and that we will pass the site visit.”

Prep sports in Belen and Los Lunas

If both those things happen, BCS athletes can begin fall sports competition on March 22. Sanchez said initially the district was told the week of spring break wouldn’t be counted as part of the two weeks of practice prior to play, but PED reversed course.

“They waffled on that. When the governor was questioned on it, we were told it didn’t,” he said. “Now it does.”

This change means the Eagles fall sports teams for football, soccer and volleyball will be able to compete in an abbreviated season.

Cross country will not be able to compete, with the state meet falling on March 27, the first weekend the team is eligible to run. The cross country season was shortened at the request of coaches around the state in order to give runners who also compete in track and field a break between the seasons, according to NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez.

Contreras said they are hoping the football team will be able to play two games, with the scheduling for football done by the NMAA.

“We’re in the process of scheduling games for fall,” Contreras said. “If we’re able to go back on (March 8) we’ll be able to open up and begin competing that week of (March 22) after a couple of days of full practices.”

Contreras said the plan is for volleyball to play four to five games and hopes they will be able to schedule six games for the soccer teams. The soccer season runs an additional week, through April 10, compared to the other fall sports.

While the Eagles won’t have enough soccer games in order to qualify for state, Contreras said he is exploring the possibility of scheduling games during the week of the state tournament as well in order to fit in more opportunities.

Contreras said he will be scheduling games against county rivals Los Lunas and Valencia, as well as trying to get in games against Albuquerque Public Schools teams though APS will be attempting to play within the city as much as possible.

“I’m happy for the kids to be able to get some games in,” Contreras said. “I’m sure everyone is excited.”

This change also means the Eagles winter sports teams will be able to start their seasons on time. The first day of the season for spirit, basketball and swim and dive is March 22.

With Belen’s two-week period beginning on the March 8, those winter sports will be able to begin competing on March 27, the first day competitions are allowed. The wrestling season begins a week later on March 29, with competitions allowed to begin on April 3.

At its March 2 meeting, the Los Lunas Board of Education voted 4-1 to send students back to the classroom for in-person learning starting at the high school level.

The plan allows for high school students to head back to the classroom on Monday, March 8, for reorientation, and March 22 for hybrid instruction.

Los Lunas Schools Athletic Director Wilson Holland said he is also hoping for two football games for each of his high schools, Los Lunas and Valencia.

Holland is planning for five to six games for each of the soccer and volleyball teams and already has games on the schedule in those sports against Albuquerque Academy and Grants, who both lost games due to opponents pulling out, as well as having been in contact with APS and Contreras.

“It’s fortunate for us that the three of us — APS, Los Lunas and Belen — are all jumping in at the same time,” Holland said.

As is the case for BHS teams, winter sports at Los Lunas and Valencia will be able to start the season on time instead of waiting for the two-week acclimation period. Holland said his plan is to worry about scheduling district games first, since in many sports, such as basketball, district games will take the majority of the games allowed for each team. In the case of Los Lunas, who plays in a six-team district, 10 of the 12 basketball games they are allowed will be district games. Once those are settled, Holland said non-district games would follow.

Holland hopes to have schedules finalized for fall sports and sent to the NMAA sometime around March 10.

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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.