Bloomfield school officials brief NM education secretary on COVID-19 plan

Ryan Stewart hears presentations, tours school

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The New Mexico education secretary is visiting school districts throughout the state this week.
  • Stewart met Aug. 18 with Kim Mizell, James Olivas and Kevin Summers of the Bloomfield School District.
  • Mizell said her district has been developing its plan for dealing with COVID-19 issues for five months.

FARMINGTON — State Education Secretary Ryan Stewart kicked off his tour of districts throughout the state to see how they are adapting to COVID-19-related issues with a visit to the Bloomfield School District on Aug. 18, meeting with district officials and visiting an elementary school.

Stewart was due to visit Cuba schools on Aug. 18 after his Bloomfield trip and will make the rounds of some Albuquerque schools later in the week.

"I think every place is going to operate differently," he said of his expectation of what his tour will reveal, but he noted he was impressed by what he had seen in Bloomfield.

He said the issues caused by the pandemic have been unprecedented and have caused enormous stress for superintendents and their districts, but he said he was very encouraged by the thoughtfulness he has seen demonstrated. He compared everyone in the public education field to first-year teachers as they try to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Coronavirus in New Mexico:Pandemic impacts Honduran family's hopes of returning to Farmington

"There's a lot to learn," he said. "We're going to have to be flexible and adjust."

But Stewart believes educators throughout the state already have turned a corner in learning to deal with those issues. The sudden closure of schools last spring left everyone scrambling, he said, educators seem to have made good use of their time this summer to adapt.

"In the spring, we had to turn right on a dime," Stewart said. "I think we're in a much better place right now. We still have a long way to go, but I think this fall is going to look and feel much different than spring did."

Dr. Ryan Stewart says he believes educators throughout the state are much better positioned to deal with the issues surrounding COVID-19 now than they were when the pandemic began last spring.

Bloomfield's superintendent describes local efforts

Stewart began his day by sitting down with Superintendent Dr. Kim Mizell and hearing presentations from James Olivas, the director of data, operations and assessment; and Kevin Summers, the director of pre K-12 curriculum and instruction. 

Stewart was handed a large binder that outlined the district's plan for keeping students safe and providing effective learning under the in-person, remote and hybrid models being used this school year.

Mizell said the plan has been in the works since March, when the rapid spread of the virus caused a shutdown of most institutions and businesses in the state.

"We had a think tank at the end of March," Mizell said. "We brainstormed a plan."

Traffic:Woman killed in three-vehicle crash in Bloomfield, shutting traffic down for hours

She pointed out that Olivas' experience as a military veteran was very helpful to that process of crisis management.

"The way he thinks has really helped us a lot," she told Stewart.

The plan the district developed is expansive, covering everything from explicit instructions on how employees and students should wash their hands and what screening procedures are in place to identify individuals who may be ill to how facilities and equipment are being sanitized, and what personal protective equipment has been made available.

It also outlines the steps the district has taken to ensure that students who lack adequate Internet access at home are having other options made available to them. Mizell noted the district has gone to great lengths to establish additional WIFI hot spots with some of the funding it received from the federal CARES Act, and it has established partnerships with some community service organizations who have volunteered to help make Internet service available to low-income families.

Kim Mizell

She said three district schools have had their hot spots expanded to their parking lots, something that will allow students to access the Internet even when their building is closed.

Stewart floated the possibility of large tents being erected in some of those parking lots to provide some shade and protection to students accessing that service.

"That's not a bad idea, especially with the heat the way it is right now," Mizell said.

She said much of the rest of the federal stimulus funding the district received was used to refine its online learning model. She said 19 teachers from the district received a salary stipend this summer to work on that project.

Coronavirus update:Bloomfield school district battles treacherous conditions to feed kids

The district also has placed an emphasis on communicating all those things to the parents of students, she said, noting that effort has taken the form of social media postings as well as one-on-one outreach efforts by teachers.

When Stewart asked how that had been received, Mizell said most parents seem very appreciative. She also said the district has made a concerted effort to meet the needs of its Navajo students, many of whom live in remote areas where Internet connectivity is not available or is often unreliable.

Olivas noted the challenges many of those Navajo families face, explaining that when the district carried out the delivery of free meals over the summer to its students, some of them arrived at the designated pick-up location on horseback.

Community members wait to receive food and supplies donated to the Navajo Nation from various entities to address the coronavirus crisis on the reservation. The items were distributed by the tribe's Office of the President and Vice President on June 12 at the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Shiprock.

"That brings you to your knees," he said.

Summers walked Stewart through the district's remote learning program, explaining it has put together a Google Classroom curriculum for the entire first quarter for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. He described the program as an immersive learning classroom experience and demonstrated how its visuals are constructed to resemble an actual classroom.

"Most of the elements are clickable, or actionable," he said, clicking on a book at the corner of the screen, which opened a video of the book being read aloud, complete with illustrations.

"This does not replace direct instruction, but this is something for the parent to assist their child with," he said. " … It's a very engaging curriculum we've created."

Education:Bloomfield School District discusses equity, online learning at virtual meeting

Summers said one of the challenges facing the district was the fact that while some teachers already were well versed in the specifics of using Google Classroom, others had never heard of it. The district has devoted a lot of time and resources to providing training in how to use it, he said.

He's been pleased with how all those teachers have responded.

"Honestly, our teachers have been rock stars," he said.

Mizell is proud of what the district has accomplished over the last five months, especially in light of the $2 million budget hit it took in the wake of the economic slowdown that has resulted in a freeze on hiring. She said she has shared the document she presented to Stewart with her colleagues across the state and has received much positive feedback.

Bloomfield coach Scott Reid talks to his team at halftime during Thursday’s boys soccer match at the Aztec Tiger Sports Complex.

"They say, 'We're using Bloomfield's document, Bloomfield's model,'" she said. "It makes us feel good. We're proud of it, but it's important to share."

Mizell followed up the presentation by escorting Stewart to nearby Naaba Ani Elementary School, where Principal Heather Summers took him to two classrooms where he could see the social-distancing measures that have been put in place to keep students safe. The number of tables in each classroom had been reduced and spread out, and only a limited number of students will be present on hybrid learning days while others absorb the day's lessons remotely.

That model is designed to keep students safe, but one teacher said some of her students already have expressed some disappointment in not being able to attend class every day with their friends.

"My students are disheartened," she said. "They want to come."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.