When the governor announced schools in New Mexico could return to partial in-person learning for all grade levels last month, the news was greeted with excitement as well as reservations, questions and many unknowns.

Local school districts have been doing heavy lifting since Jan. 26, getting plans in place for hybrid learning at the secondary level, scrambling to find air filters required by the New Mexico Public Education Department and making sure they are stocked up on cleaning supplies and masks.

Local boards for Belen Consolidated Schools, Los Lunas Schools and Valencia County’s charter school, School of Dreams Academy, all discussed returning to in-person learning this week.

During the Los Lunas Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, the board voted to remain in remote learning, with the exception of select special needs students who have been allowed back in 5:1 pods.

The board agreed to reconsider moving to the hybrid model at its March 23 meeting, after the district’s spring break.

That same day, the Belen Board of Education held a three-plus-hour long workshop to discuss its next steps. The board didn’t make a decision but put the reopening of schools as an action item on its Tuesday, Feb. 9, meeting agenda.

When asked what he felt the soonest the district could reasonably be ready for hybrid learning, BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez told the board March 1. He emphasized any change in learning models needed to be carefully considered.

“We don’t want to come back, then a month later say, ‘Oh, it didn’t work,’” Sanchez said. “Someone used the word ‘sustainable.’ We cannot do this because everyone else is doing it. We have to do what’s best for Belen schools.”

Tuesday evening, the SODA Governing Council voted unanimously to remain in remote learning, rather that move to hybrid.

When the school year started in August, districts were allowed to use a hybrid model of teaching for elementary school students where 50 percent of students at any given school were on campus two days a week while the other half learned remotely from home. The two cohorts switched back and forth, allowing each group to have two days of in-person lessons and three of remote instruction.

The initial plan was to phase in middle and high school students, but the amount COVID-19 cases increased quickly across the state, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham nixed the return of secondary students.

Now that districts can offer hybrid learning to all grade levels, districts find themselves needing to implement a cohort plan for secondary students.

Belen Consolidated Schools

Belen Schools began the school year in the hybrid model, but in late November, decided to switch to full remote learning and hasn’t returned to hybrid since.

Lawrence Sanchez
Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent

The New Mexico Public Education Department has directed secondary cohorts stay in one classroom while the teachers move from class to class, instead of the traditional movement of students.

“We’re not sure what that will look like,” Superintendent Sanchez said. “At the high school, maybe the four core classes during in-person and electives online seem possible, but we’re not sure.”

The idea of keeping students stationary is to cut down on possible exposure to the virus, but a teacher who is positive for COVID-19 moving from class to class could still spread the infection. If that were to happen, all the students the teacher had close contact with would need to quarantine, Sanchez said.

“Everyone in the room is considered in close contact — same with a bus,” he said. “One positive and everybody has to quarantine, no ifs, ands or buts. That’s a consideration we have to look at.”

Safety precautions required by PED for all schools include wearing masks, frequent cleaning and sanitizing, soap and water readily available in all bathrooms and hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

Another big hurdle for BCS and other districts is the requirement for upgraded air filters in HVAC systems. The state allocated $6 million for filter replacement, of which BCS got $139,921.

Assistant Superintendent of Finance Annette Torrez said the first quote on filters the district got was more than $200,000, and that was just for elementary school classrooms.

“Yes, there is funding but it’s not enough,” Torrez said.

Antonio Sedillo, the districts maintenance supervisor, said the district’s heating and cooling systems aren’t subpar, rather what PED is asking for is more in line with hospital air systems.

“The units even in our newest school, Rio Grande Elementary, are built to use MERV 8 filtration,” Sedillo said. “That’s the way they were built. We have good air quality in our classrooms. Other than hospitals and Intel clean rooms, normal systems are not designed for that kind of air filtration.”

The state has asked districts to install MERV 13 filters and will allow them to go as low as MERV 9s to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Surveys sent out by the district indicate of those who responded, 60 percent of students and parents favor a return to the hybrid model, but only 40 percent of teachers surveyed are on board with hybrid.

Royceann LaFayette, a counselor with the district and a representative of the National Education Association-Belen teachers’ union, said a small, recent survey of NEA members showed 74 percent of respondents wanted to stay in remote learning.

“Our teachers are working so hard. All of our staff is. There have been so many changes. At the high school, we were training for hybrid, then we switched to all remote. Now we’re three months away from the end of the year, we’ve finally figured out remote and now, here we go again, changing,” LaFayette said. “We love our kids and want to get back, as long as it’s safe.”

Los Lunas Schools

With lots of questions that needed answers, the Los Lunas Board of Education on Tuesday, Feb. 2, didn’t approve Superintendent Arsenio Romero’s recommendation to begin a hybrid model on Feb. 22.

Arsenio Romero
Los Lunas Superintendent

After much discussion, board member Steven Otero made a motion to keep the district in a remote model with the exception of those special needs students who started in-person learning on Feb. 1, and revisit the plan for hybrid reentry in a board meeting on March 23.

The board voted 4-1, with board member David Vickers voting no.

Many of those questions from board members for Romero included how buses will work with social distancing and vaccination schedules for teachers.

Romero proposed a Feb. 22 start date with seniors and juniors heading back to the classroom first and underclassmen cycling in shortly after. On March 1, eighth-graders were to head back to in-person learning and seventh graders on March 11.

Then on March 22, starting with the youngest grade levels, elementary students would head back to the classroom.

During his presentation to the board, Romero cited statistics from a survey sent out to district parents, students and staff concerning their want for a hybrid return.

Of 518 students who took the survey, 52.9 percent said they wanted to return to a hybrid learning model, 41.5 percent of 3,576 parents said they wanted a return to the classroom for their children, and most notably, 33.6 percent of 738 employees in the district said they wanted to come back.

National Education Association-Los Lunas, the union representing teachers in the district, sent board members and Romero a memo about a possible collective bargaining agreement that should be completed before a return to in-person learning. Romero said he received the memo just two hours before the special board meeting began.

The board did approve the purchase for HEPA filters for school sites — a move that will make a possible hybrid reentry more likely. Those filters will need to be approved by a local fire marshal and PED before reentry is possible.

While Vickers was the lone board member to vote against the motion by Otero, he did say some districts entered a hybrid model last fall during a “far worse time.” He asked Romero if the district would be safer than Smith’s or Walmart, to which Romero responded he’d like to stay in his area of “expertise” and said he couldn’t definitively say.

Board member Frank Otero was concerned about vaccinations for staff members — and teachers particularly — saying he couldn’t vote yes to Romero’s reentry recommendation until that part gets figured out.

“I’m just hearing all kinds of anxiety from employees, teachers, what have you,” Frank Otero said. “I’ve been around for a long time and I’m not going to back away from the vaccination part … whether we approve things tonight or not, I can’t approve it.”

Board member Eloy Giron agreed.

“We have the football right now, we are in the fourth quarter. All we have to do is run out the clock — we can’t fumble,” Giron said. “We do that, we win. I cannot ask a teacher or a staff member to come back to work without that vaccine.”

School of Dreams Academy

Mike Ogas, superintendent of School of Dreams Academy, said since the governor announced schools can return to in-person learning, the charter school has been making sure requirements are being met.

Mike Ogas
School of Dreams Academy Superintendent

He said they have been going over the toolkit from PED and gauging where students, staff and parents are at when it came to in-person learning.

“I don’t have any intentions this evening on making any hard fast decisions or a recommendation on how we should go,” Ogas told the SODA Governing Council at its Tuesday, Feb. 2, meeting.

The council voted unanimously to remain remote for the time being, while those other factors get sorted out.

Ogas, with the help of some staff members, created a survey to ask what was wanted by the SODA community in terms of if they were ready to come back. Of the 43 staff members who responded, 41.9 percent said they wouldn’t want to come back to campus for in-person learning, while 37.2 percent said maybe and 20.9 percent said yes.

The results of the survey also showed 54.1 of parents and students who responded to the survey say they wouldn’t be ready to come back to a hybrid model of learning, while 45.9 percent said yes.

In another form of that question, 60.4 percent of respondents said they would like to remain in an online virtual setting the remainder of the school year.

Council member David Schneider, a physician, mentioned he recently read a study which reported juveniles weren’t the biggest spreaders of COVID-19. He added, however, he isn’t in the same position as staff at SODA — and parents of students — when it comes to trying to create a safe reentry to in-person learning.

Kenneth Griego, another council member, agreed.

“I like the idea that we’re not rushing into anything,” Griego said.

SODA will hold another meeting on Tuesday, March 2, with a possible return to hybrid reentry being discussed further.

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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.