Saying the planning and hard work of education leaders across the state has paid off, the governor announced students of all ages can go back to the classroom on Feb. 8.

“I believe … our state has developed a solid, epidemiologically-sound plan for a safe expansion of in-person learning for all age groups, supported by union leadership,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during Tuesday’s State of the State address. “We will get this right, and we will move forward, and every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on February 8.”

The news was greeted by Valencia County superintendents with measured optimism and excitement.

Belen Consolidated Schools

“My initial reaction is it’s exciting but it’s not as simple as people may think,” said Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez.

Lawrence Sanchez
Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent

While the governor announced a welcome back for students of all ages as opposed to just elementary students, Sanchez said that doesn’t mean full, in-person learning can return.

“The way I understand it, no one is allowed to go back to all in-person, not even in green counties,” Sanchez said. “We will be at 50 percent. We will still have to provide remote learning for the half that isn’t on campus, and some parents won’t want to send their students back.”

Shortly after the governor’s announcement, the state public education department issued further guidance in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions document. In the FAQ, the department explains while middle and high schools can reopen in a hybrid model, they are not required to do so. The final decision will be made by each local school district or charter school.

One issue BCS and other local districts are running into is the air quality guidance the state’s public education department has set. The department wants schools to install filters with a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) of 13, but many districts are finding those are in short supply or aren’t compatible with their systems.

“The MERV 13s, none of our HVAC systems can handle them. We can use the MERV 9s, but those have been back ordered since September, October,” Sanchez said. “We are looking at a lot of requirements including PPE, hand sanitizer and soaps with 60 percent alcohol. In the cafeterias, at the secondary level, students all have to sit facing the same direction.”

Sanchez said he needs to get the board of education up to speed, and plans to hold a virtual public workshop next Tuesday to take questions from stakeholders

Schools are also subject to the state’s criteria for handling positive cases, including rapid responses. The state initiates a rapid response when one or more employee tests positive for COVID-19. If a location has four responses in 14 days, it has to close for 14 calendar days.

“Our fear is if we have a closure, we don’t want parents yo-yoing. We’re open, then closed for two weeks and they have to figure out child care,” Sanchez said.

Los Lunas Schools

Los Lunas Schools, which has remained in a remote-learning model since March, was one of the many school districts statewide that opted to remain remote at the beginning of the fall semester.

With Tuesday’s news, Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Arsenio Romero said the district first needs to look at what it can do to get students and teaching staff back in the classroom safely.

Arsenio Romero
Los Lunas Superintendent

“The best thing I can say right now, in this moment, is we are going to take a look at all options, and we want to make sure that we are doing what’s best for kids and staff when it comes to safety,” Romero said. “A lot of this comes down to internal controls that we have when it comes to how we are able to make sure we are social distancing, that we’ve got PPE in place, that we have HVAC and air purification systems in place, that we’ve got protocols for how we move during passing periods, and how we provide lunch and transportation; there are a lot of moving parts to this.”

Romero anticipates a special board meeting will take place early next week to discuss those options, but the goal has always been to get students back in the classroom.

“This offers some additional possibilities for specifically our high school, so now we have some possibilities for K-12,” Romero said. “The question I’m talking about is how fast can we move into a hybrid model? And that’s why I want to make sure we make a very responsible decision moving forward with that type of environment.”

Currently, the district has about 20 HEPA air filters but will need hundreds more to get students back in the classroom in a fully hybrid model.

“We need to check with the manufacturer if the filters are in stock and if we have a delivery date for those to get them installed,” Romero said.

School of Dreams Academy

Much like LLS, School of Dreams Academy has remained in a remote-learning model since schools shut down and through the 2020-21 school year.

Mike Ogas, superintendent of SODA, said the governor’s words during the State of the State address were welcomed. However, hurdles remain for the only charter school in Valencia County, such as getting protocols in place.

He doesn’t expect students to come back beginning Feb. 8, but said the school is working towards getting students back in that hybrid model as soon as possible.

Mike Ogas
School of Dreams Academy Superintendent

“We’ve been working through the different priorities the state has from filtration systems to planning hybrid learning,” Ogas said. “Right now, we are waiting on the different filters that have been ordered to come in … I’ll be working with my administration and staff to see how we start bringing small groups in and what that is going to look like. There are still a lot of things up in the air, but we are in a lot better shape than a year ago, two months ago.”

Asked if Feb. 8 will be a day some students come back for in-person learning, Ogas said, “Probably not. We probably aren’t going to meet that benchmark but we are working with a plan. We’ll see where it takes us.”

In her State of the State address, Lujan Grisham said teachers and school support staff all across New Mexico went the extra mile this year — and the extra mile after that, too.

“I’m in awe of your commitment and your integrity. And I will say clearly: None of you — no educator, no school worker — should ever have to choose between your health and the students you serve,” she said. “And that’s why my administration has been methodical and tireless in working with superintendents, charter leaders, the Department of Health, the Medical Advisory Team and both NEA and AFT to enhance the safety of school buildings and expand surveillance testing.

“There’s no substitute for in-person learning,” the governor said. “And there’s no negotiating about the health and safety of students, families and educators.”

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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.