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Uncertainties lie ahead as school districts in New Mexico prepare for the new year

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — Hobbs Municipal Schools Superintendent TJ Parks told the Legislative Finance Committee that he is looking forward to seeing the students return to school this fall, but he is also terrified.

Parks said in his 40 years of education he has never gone through anything like this pandemic.

“As much as I look forward to seeing our kids, I’m scared to death,” he said. “We don’t know what’s around the corner because it’s not if, it’s when we have a case (of COVID-19) and it’s going to happen. We know that it will.”

How to safely bring students back to school and how to address potential distance learning challenges were among the topics discussed at the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee this week.

The session can be viewed at nmlegis.gov.

Ryan Stewart, the New Mexico Secretary Designate of Public Education,  back right, visits the classroom of Betty Wilson at Apache Elementary School in Farmington on Oct. 9. He toured Apache and Ladera Del Norte elementary schools during his trip.

The New Mexico Public Education Department has sent out a list of requirements the school districts must abide by when school resumes in August. This includes social distancing measures and mandatory face coverings.

The goal, according to New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart, is to eventually bring all students back to school. Even the students who have access to the internet may struggle in an online learning setting and may have already lost a significant portion of their learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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At the same time, having children return to school could increase the spread of COVID-19 and place both students and teachers at risk. And school districts are bracing for the possibility that they may have to move from in-person learning to a virtual setting depending on what happens with the virus going forward.

Students wait to be picked up Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016,  at Ladera Del Norte Elementary School in Farmington.

Presenters tell lawmakers that students learn best in person 

It is important to bring the students back to an in-person education system because studies have found in-person learning leads to higher academic performance than students who engage in online learning, presenters told state lawmakers.

Ryan Tolman, a program evaluator for the Legislative Finance Committee, said districts can choose to adopt computer-assisted learning to reduce that trend. He said computer-assisted learning programs act like tutors and are more effective than online videos.

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The focus when students go back to school in the fall will likely be on making up for the learning that was lost due to the coronavirus. Most districts in the state have submitted plans to the public education department and those plans often call for a combination of online and in-person learning. For example, Farmington Municipal Schools is conducting a study to determine how many parents and guardians plan to send children to school in person this year. Parents and guardians will have a choice between online and in-person learning.

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According to a presentation to the Legislative Education Study Committee, students will likely be three months to a year behind when they return to school, and the closure of schools due to the coronavirus will have greater impacts on younger students.

Tolman said students typically lose one to two months of learning over the summer. That will be exacerbated due to the school closures and distance learning that began in March. If schools remain closed through January, the students will likely lose another three to 14 months of learning, and that will have more severe impacts on minority and low-income students.

This could have lifelong impacts on those students, he said. Children who fall behind their peers in school are more likely to drop out and will likely have lower incomes as adults.

During the spring, after the schools went to online learning, one in five students could not be contacted and less than half of the students participated in the distance learning. In schools that required the distance learning, 52% of the students participated. In schools that did not require the distance learning, 41% participated.

Students who do not have access to internet access will face even greater challenges.

Students head to class in August 2018 at C.V. Koogler Middle School in Aztec.

Internet access creates challenges, especially for low-income and minority communities

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools and internet providers began to rush deployment of technology to provide some form of internet access for students. Some school districts provided hotspots for students, a process that Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, described as a band-aid for the problem.

In other places, locations throughout the community were set up to have wireless internet access. For example, Sacred Wind delivered towers on wheels to provide wireless internet to some of the Navajo chapter houses, including Nageezi, Huerfano and Upper Fruitland.

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But those locations often do not have access to indoor facilities. Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the chief technology director for Santa Fe Indian School, said that solution has some inherent problems, including lack of transportation and students parked in hot cars trying to do classwork.

An empty playground is pictured, Friday, March 27, 2020, at Lydia Rippey Elementary School in Aztec.

Stewart said money received through the CARES Act is being used to bridge the digital divide and to acquire personal protective equipment for schools.

The digital divide is especially apparent in rural areas and tribal communities.

New Mexico is one of the states with the least internet access. As of November, New Mexico ranked 49th in the nation for access to broadband infrastructure.

One in five families does not have internet access, and that increases to 55% in tribal communities, according to a presentation to the Legislative Education Study Committee.

This was one of the challenges that the districts faced when the schools closed in March. While districts prepare for emergencies, this drawn-out pandemic was something none of them were ready to face.

Farmington High School sits empty on Friday, May 1, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We, quite frankly, weren’t ready for it,” said Stan Rounds, the executive director of the New Mexico Superintendents Association. “We did our very best. Teachers scrambled to do their best, in some cases almost just over a weekend, by the way, to start back up. As districts we met the health needs and also the nutrition needs of students in an amazing resiliency that I was surprised would occur as we began serving many, many lunches on a grab-and-go basis, delivery by buses to bus stops, delivery out even to chapter houses from districts using their public transportation or their transportation networking, national guard systems, things like that.”

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Rounds said technology was one of the major issues the district faced.

“This last spring we found every problem in technology you could,” he said.

Districts scrambled to address a lack of technology while students in rural areas faced lack of access to the internet. In some parts of the state, Round said those students did not even have access to cell service.

Bloomfield was one of those districts where some students had little or no access to the internet. Rounds said Bloomfield put technology on their buses and drove those buses out to remote areas so that people could have internet access.

“We’ve been doing the same thing in education for 385 years and we’re trying to change that model in less than six months,” Parks said. “And it’s a very difficult process.”

At the same time, Parks said the pandemic may force schools to make changes that have been needed to give families more flexibility.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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