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Schools could mandate use of masks for staff, students

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FARMINGTON — There are a lot of questions that remain up in the air as to how students can safely return to classrooms in Fall 2020, but San Juan County school districts are preparing multiple plans in which safety for staff and students is a top priority.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 95,000 people in the United States and infected about 1.61 million people as of May 22, prompted school districts around the world to shut down earlier this year and quickly pivot to online education.

Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter and Farmington Municipal School District administrators answered questions about how education might look in the future as countries work to develop treatments and eventually a vaccine against COVID-19.

Carpenter told The Daily Times he saw three possible models of education for the fall and possibly Spring 2021.

The students could all return to the classroom like they did before; a hybrid model where certain students spend a day or two in the classroom with virtual learning filling in the gaps and a total virtual education online, like students have encountered the last nine weeks.

"Nothing is going to be the same even if we open up in August," Carpenter said. "Everything is going to be different as far as cleaning, the amount of times kids are washing their hands and where we are feeding kids, all of that."

Safety was one of the top priorities for Farmington Superintendent Gene Schmidt, who said education is entering a new paradigm, a new reality where learning will be different than before the pandemic.

He hopes the community understands that students may not have a choice in safety decisions, including possible mandatory use of masks or face coverings, and that things like playgrounds could remain closed for an indefinite amount of time.

"If that means a kindergartner needs to wear a mask, we need to honor the new sets of rules that may be coming out from this," Schmidt said.

Farmington school administrators shared similar concerns about letting students and staff return to school buildings that have been vacant since Spring Break.

"There's a lot of safety requirements that we have to have in place, depending on the number of kids that are showing up," Farmington Assistant Superintendent Phil Valdez said. "Not just classroom scheduling, but transportation, scheduling meals. How do kids go up and down a hallway to maintain social distancing?"

Educators believe guidance on how schools will operate will largely depend on what the New Mexico Public Education Department will share in the future.

The department just announced the formation of the New Mexico School Reentry Task Force, which will guide plans for reopening public schools.

Schools in Farmington might conduct daily temperature screenings of students, which could lead to parents being told to promptly pick up their children and taking them home if their temperature is too high.

School buses which typically carry around 44 students, could be limited to transporting 12 students, depending on social distancing requirements.

Students at school might be eating their meals at their desk in a classroom.

For high school students, Valdez gave an example of an English teacher who could teach three classes on campus and might teacher another three virtually throughout the day.

"We will be allowed to meet the needs of our own educational challenge by designing a plan that I think has a lot of local control," Schmidt said.

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Students who saw a pass or no-credit model this spring could see additional requirements in the fall for attendance, shifting back to the previous grading system and taking assessments to determine if they are learning.

Carpenter believes school districts will have freedom to tailor models of instruction to their students, but a lot of the work cannot be finalized until further instruction on operating is received from the state.

Another big unknown for educators is that families may not be prepared to send their children to school and teachers might be apprehensive about returning to a physical setting.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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