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Santa Fe, N.M., School District to Start Year Virtually

Students enrolled in Santa Fe Public Schools will be going back to school a little bit later this year — Aug. 20 — and they'll likely be spending at least the first nine weeks learning from home.

by Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican / July 16, 2020
Shutterstock/fizkes

(TNS) — Students enrolled in Santa Fe Public Schools will be going back to school a little bit later this year — Aug. 20 — and they'll likely be spending at least the first nine weeks learning from home.

Superintendent Veronica García and the local teachers union will ask the Board of Education on Thursday for permission to trigger a fully remote learning plan for at least the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year against the backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases both in the state and Santa Fe.

If conditions improve in the fall, the district said it will slowly began sending students back to schools in small increments, eventually increasing them in ratios of 20 percent while maintaining a system of hybrid learning — some classes online, some in school settings.

"We will open the spigot a little bit at a time as we bring kids back so we don’t have any problems in terms of safety with the kids and faculty and staff," García said Wednesday. "With this virus, I want to protect our kids 100 percent."

Faculty and staff will return to work Aug. 11.

She said if the transmission rate for the region drops to an acceptable 1.05 percent, the district might start bringing some children back to schools before the nine weeks are over.

As of Wednesday, the transmission rate for the northeast sector of the state — which comprises 10 counties, including Santa Fe — was 1.1. But Santa Fe County on Wednesday also reported its highest single-day caseload — 29 — since the pandemic reached New Mexico in mid-March.

The district's plan, which needs school board approval, comes on the heels of both the Los Alamos and West Las Vegas school districts announcing they will start their fall semesters with home learning at least through Labor Day weekend.

As the traditional opening of the school year inched closer, teachers and parents had expressed concerns about safely returning to the classroom, even in a hybrid model. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also hinted there could be hurdles to reopening if COVID-19 numbers do not decline.

The agreement between the district and the National Education Association-Santa Fe came the same day García announced in a news release that two contractors for the district had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. On Monday, two employees in the district Facilities and Maintenance Department also tested positive.

The superintendent said in the news release that the two contractors, who worked for Maintenance Services Systems Inc., were involved in "a tight social and familial circle outside of work [that] may have led to this spread."

In a telephone interview Wednesday, the superintendent said the spread of the virus among those workers proves that "the activity that happens at home impacts the school district. It's quite sobering when you don't comply [with health care guidelines]."

Asked if the district's plan, if approved by the board, will affect parents who might no longer be working from home during the pandemic, García replied: "Absolutely. And I think it’s gonna be a big issue for teachers who have children and are also trying to teach. That will be difficult. We are looking at partnering with community agencies to expand and provide more child care if possible — especially for the littlest ones who require so much."

She said the district is working to eliminate kinks identified in its remote learning plan, which it unveiled in March. Unlike some districts, Santa Fe provided a take-home device for every student, though it has long acknowledged that under normal circumstances, a traditional classroom setting would be preferable.

The Legislative Education Study Committee tackled the subject of remote learning during its Wednesday meeting in Cloudcroft. Among other reports, committee members learned that more than 600 students in the Rio Rancho Public Schools had inadequate or no home connection to make distance learning work.

That problem was resolved in about a week and a half, the report said.

Kimball Sekaquaptewa, director of technology for Santa Fe Indian School, said that while some Native communities and pueblos were able to forge relationships with entities such as libraries to ensure students had a technological connection to their classrooms, connectivity was a problem overall.

More than 40 percent of students housed on tribal lands lacked access to broadband to make remote learning possible, and some 65 percent of all Native students working from home had to rely on their cellphones to connect with teachers, she said.

In some cases, that meant seniors were typing out their final essays on their phones. In one case, a student had to handwrite his essay and then take photos of it and send it in via his cellphone, she said.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, didn't like hearing that news. He said he worries about students who are forced to break COVID-19 quarantine restrictions and leave their respective pueblos to drive to the nearest fast-food restaurant for an internet connection.

He said he also fears distance learning means those Native students "have to teach themselves English, history, calculus.”

After the meeting, Lente said that kind of challenge is one reason the state remains "at the top of so many ‘worst’ lists."

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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