Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 2 to include reopening plans for St. Mary’s Catholic School in Belen. The information was provided after the News-Bulletin’s press deadline.

When students across Valencia County go back to school next month, it will be very different than previous years.

Teachers, staff and students alike will be required to wear face coverings, there will be frequent hand washing and classrooms will be at half capacity.

Last week, the New Mexico Public Education Department recommended the 2020-21 school year begin with a mix of in-person and online learning.

This hybrid schedule alternates days students are in buildings with the learning-from-home model used at the end of last academic year.

The PED recommendation allows local districts to create a hybrid schedule that works best for their parents, and allows time for proper sanitization between in-person classes.

Belen Consolidated Schools

To prepare for an Aug. 18 start date, Belen Consolidated Schools has sent a survey to parents, asking them to rank three possible hybrid schedules, said Belen Schools Superintendent Diane Vallejos.

One option allows 50 percent of students at school on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half on Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday a remote-learning day for everyone. The buildings would be deep cleaned on Wednesday and Saturday.

The second schedule has the two groups overlap the weekend and leapfrog each other, going to in-person lessons Thursday and Friday, then Monday and Tuesday.

The third option is to have each group attend in-person classes for four days, every other week, with remote learning one day a week.

The deadline for the survey was Wednesday, July 1, and results were not available before the News-Bulletin’s deadline.

“Like we did at the end of last year, students at home would have remote learning activities while they weren’t receiving in-person instruction,” Vallejos said.

The district has formed an educational impact committee of teachers, parents and administrators to assess issues such as evaluating how to help students make up for lost learning from last year and how to keep families together as school starts.

“One of the things that we are carefully considering is keeping families together,” the superintendent said. “So, we have families who have a high school or a middle school student and an elementary student. We’d like for them all to be on the same cycle of days for in-person learning. The committee is going to help make these decisions.”

Teachers and students will be screened daily for symptoms of COVID-19 and there will be temperature checks every day before students come into the building or get on the bus.

Vallejos said they would use touchless thermometers and screening questions like coaches are using for student athletes as they begin to ramp up their athletic season.

Teachers will be required to be tested for COVID-19 before they will be allowed in the classroom.

“I’m confident we will be able to put something in place this year to provide our students with a solid education,” Vallejos said. “We know we’re going to have to focus on the core classes, and we know there are learning models out there that will help us with that. We know when kids are not with us (in the classrooms) we’re going to have to give them quality work to do.”

After the recent special session, the Legislature mandated districts add 10 instructional days to their calendar to recover from last year’s abrupt closure due to COVID-19. For BCS, that will mean a 190-day school year.

“We can most likely find those days in our existing calendar, but there’s a high probability we will have to re-look at our school calendar,” she said.

Canon Christian Academy

As a private school, Canon Christian Academy in Belen isn’t bound by PED’s recommendations, and will begin 100 percent live classes on Aug. 12, school head master Shaun Gibson announced via video last month.

“We will be staying live for the duration of the year,” said Gibson in a June 11 video posted to the school’s Facebook page. “The health and well being of our students is utmost.”

To that end, the school will be using what Gibson described as “cutting edge technology” to fight the spread of COVID-19.

The classrooms will be sterilized with a hydrogen peroxide fog, the same as hospitals use, he said, and temperatures of students and staff will be monitored via infrared cameras as they enter.

High-touch areas, such as door knobs and push bars, will get antibacterial coatings and all classrooms will have touch-free hand sanitizer dispensers.

“We believe online and digital education cannot address all the needs of a student,” Gibson said. “We will only suspend live instruction when it is necessary to protect our students; not for political action that is deemed arbitrary, oppressive or unreasonable. This is neither reckless nor rebellious. We are standing up for the rights of our students to give them best education we can.”

When the school switched to distance learning last year, Gibson said some students struggled.

“You have some who could learn in a closet, and they were fine. Others need that real time guidance and interaction,” he said. “Education is communication. Teachers have to look out across a classroom and assess immediately, ‘Did they get it?’ It’s hard to read faces and emotions with a mask.”

The head master said wearing masks wouldn’t be required buy any student who felt safer with one was welcome to wear one.

“In past years, we’ve had students who wore masks for a reason. We are always willing to modify for the child – whether it’s in the classroom or recess or a food allergy – we will always make modifications for the needs of the student.”

Gibson said the classrooms, which have a maximum capacity of 16, will be sanitized daily. Last year, the student body was just less than 170 pupils, he said.

St. Mary’s Catholic School

St. Mary’s Catholic School in Belen is going full speed ahead to open school on Aug. 17, according to the school’s interim principal, Melodie Good.

“The Archdiocese has a task force meeting regularly and they are putting together policies and procedures for our schools,” Good said via email Thursday, July 2. “St. Mary’s school (building) capacity is more than twice the number of students that we have registered, so we feel we are already at 50 percent.”

Good said the goal is to keep all classes to 18 or fewer so that there will be ample room in the classrooms for required distancing. The school is planning for more handwashing stations and hand sanitizers outside each classroom, as well as Plexiglass dividers for classrooms that have tables.

Desks will be spaced six feet apart and hallway encounters will be minimized.

“We will utilize the Parish Center along with our cafeteria for lunches if necessary to have the physical distance, and we will ask for masks where physical distancing cannot be achieved,” she wrote. “Our daily cleaning and disinfecting procedures have been modified to reflect recommended protection against the spread of the virus.”

The school is using the recommendations from the American Association of Pediatrics, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our main priority is the safety of our staff and students while getting kids back in school full time, which is what is best for kids,” Good said in the email.

Los Lunas Schools

Walt Gibson, the acting superintendent of Los Lunas Schools, said the hybrid program might look different between the elementary schools and the secondary schools.

“We will likely do more remote learning for the secondary level kids than we will for the elementary level kids, but we want all students to have contact with their teachers at some point every week,” Gibson said.

“We think when school opens that we will have a device in the hands of every kid, so we will truly be a one-to-one district, which means that we really can do remote learning.”

Gibson said the district will be using its own curriculum across all of the grade levels.

“Because we are also an extended learning time district where we have 10 extra days of school, we’re going to dedicate the four days we have before school opens for professional development to really work to scale up our teachers to effectively deliver our curriculum electronically,” Gibson said.

Among the groups created last week to work on planning for the new school year, a subgroup was created to manage operations within the district whose main goal is finding ways to keep students safe on campus.

The district has ordered masks, hand sanitizer, thermometers and are considering purchasing Plexiglas for certain areas.

“The plan is underway; we’re talking about how we’re going to feed kids and keep them safe, how to move kids when they’re in school safely, and whether we take temperatures when kids get on the bus or before they come into the building,” Gibson said.

Various planning groups have been created for each student age group. The elementary level group consists of elementary principals and assistant principals, and the secondary group consists of secondary principals and assistant principals.

Gibson said once plans start being made, teachers and academic coaches will be added to the conversation as well.

“We anticipate meeting at least once a week to continue these discussions,” Gibson said. “Our goal is to have a preliminary plan ready by July 15 and a final plan ready by Aug. 1 so people have plenty of notice of what we’re doing.”

Los Lunas Schools sent out surveys to parents and district staff members to determine their preferred way of coming back to school. The question posed was: “If schools can reopen according to state guidance, which of the following options would your family choose?”

About 38 percent or 1,175 families of the approximate 3,000 who participated in the survey said they’d prefer blending learning, which consists of students attending school part-time as well as receiving instruction through remote learning for the rest of the time not spent in the school building.

About 33 percent of families said they preferred going back to school full-time, 25 percent said they preferred distance learning exclusively at home, and about 3 percent said they chose another option not listed in the survey.

About 50 percent of the staff participated in the survey and had similar responses to the listed options with 38 percent or 200 staff members saying they preferred the blended learning or hybrid option, 34 percent preferred being in the classroom full-time, about 24 percent wanted students participating in remote learning from home exclusively and 2 percent chose another option.

“In terms of the staff, PED said we should take people who are medically fragile and allow them to work from home,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to get a handle on that without violating HIPPA rights.”

School of Dreams Academy

School of Dreams Academy Superintendent Mike Ogas the charter school is leaning towards a mostly virtual school year if circumstances remain the same.

“We’re going to be flexible with it and planning for all three scenarios,” Ogas said. “If the health order stays the way it is, we’ll probably do some hybrid or mostly virtual learning …”

Ogas said they will meet with parents virtually to flesh out a plan and see what families prefer.

“Whatever we do, we have to have a lot of precautions to ensure the safety of students and staff,” Ogas said. “Once we hit mid July, we’ll have a much better idea of what we’ll be doing for the next school year and what will be expected of us.”

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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.