San Juan County district officials excited about New Mexico's plan to fully reopen schools
Education department directs schools to reopen by April 5
FARMINGTON — Officials at school districts throughout San Juan County reacted positively to an announcement by state education officials on March 8 that New Mexico schools can fully reopen next month, but they said there are many issues that need to be resolved before that can happen.
State Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced New Mexico is phasing out the hybrid learning model it has been operating under for the spring semester and will resume full in-person learning by April 5, with districts around the state choosing their start date. The remote learning option will remain available to families that choose that alternative, he said.
Farmington Municipal School District spokesperson Renee Lucero said Superintendent Eugene Schmidt and officials throughout the district were excited about the announcement. But she said district officials are still working out a date for when they can resume full in-person learning.
Lucero said the district's return-to-learning team was due to meet on the afternoon of March 9 to discuss those issues, and the input of principals would be sought, as well. She said she anticipated the district would be able to announce the date of its resumption of full in-person learning soon.
Bloomfield School District Superintendent Kim Mizell said she is waiting for state education officials to clarify several issues before her district makes solid plans, especially a requirement that students remain 6 feet apart in classrooms. She pointed out it would be impossible to maintain that kind of distance if classrooms are full again, so state officials will need to be flexible about that stipulation.
She said she would meet with principals March 9 to discuss the district's plan with them. Another big issue to be resolved is transportation, she said, noting that the district doesn't have enough buses to ensure 6-foot distancing between students in that situation.
"But I'm glad the kids are going to get to come back," she said, even if it is just for the last two months of the school year.
Mizell said many of her district's students — especially those at the junior high and high school level — have become comfortable with remote learning and have chosen not to return to in-person classes under the hybrid model that has been in place over the past couple of months. She doesn't expect that to change with the resumption of full in-person learning.
"I don't know that we're going to have a huge change in numbers," she said.
The state's announcement also includes a provision that allows teachers who have health concerns about returning to the classroom to continue teaching remotely until two weeks after they have received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Mizell said she doesn't expect that provision to impact her district in a substantial way, pointing out that only 15 teachers across her district have opted out of in-person learning under the hybrid model.
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"We have very committed employees," she said.
But Mizell said she didn't know how soon Bloomfield would be ready to announce a date for fully reopening its schools.
"We'll hold off on the announcements until we hear further from the state department (of education) and receive further clarification," she said.
Kirk Carpenter, superintendent of the Aztec Municipal School District, said his district likely would announce its starting date on March 10. He said the district was considering resuming full in-person learning as early as March 22 and as late as March 29.
"What we don't want to do, with all due respect, is make a top-down decision," he said, explaining that all district and community stakeholders would have a voice in that process.
Carpenter is excited about the resumption of full in-person instruction, but he said it is a complicated situation. With the increased opportunities afforded by in-person learning, there needs to be an increased sense of responsibility by all the parties involved, he said — a list that includes educators, students, their families and community members.
He said he understands that not everyone may agree with the decision to fully reopen schools. But he believes state education officials would not move forward with such a plan until they have analyzed the data and determined it is safe to do so.
"That is what has happened in this case," he said.
Carpenter said one of the positive elements that has emerged from the pandemic shutdown is the partnership the district has established with its patron families over the past several months.
"That has to continue to get stronger and stronger," he said.
Carpenter said his goal is to have students return to the classroom as quickly as possible, but he emphasized that doing so safely will be the primary concern.
"We're very excited because we're in the kid businesses, and our kids need us more than ever before," he said.
Superintendent Daniel Benavidez said the Central Consolidated School District will begin phasing in in-person learning on March 22.
"We want our parents to know that our schools are open and that they still have the choice to send their students back to in-person learning or keep them remote for now," he stated in an email. "Parents should also know that the Public Education Department’s expectation is that all in-person learning resumes by April 5, and Central Schools are ready for that to happen safely."
Benavidez said he and his staff have been waiting for a decision by the education department to resume full in-person instruction for a while, adding he thinks his employees are well prepared for the move.
"We have had most of our staff vaccinated and will continue to offer shot clinics to all staff members," he stated. "NMPED's decision to open up tells me that our community is taking this nasty virus very seriously. The district has to address social-emotional, mental health issues, and students coming back to the classroom means that we can address them fully."
Stewart also announced that other school-related activities such as band, choir and drama that had been suspended during the shutdown can resume immediately.
Schmidt, Mizell and Carpenter all said they will begin to examine how those activities can resume in a safe fashion, with Mizell indicting her district would examine the idea of moving them outside when appropriate.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was part of a teleconference discussion on March 8 with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other tribal leaders around the state, during which the governor informed them about the planned reopening of schools.
Nez has said he continues to support online learning for the time being, a position backed by resolutions from the Navajo Nation Board of Education and the Navajo Nation Council.
Nez indicated during a town hall event on March 9 that the governor's announcement caught him off guard. But his communications director, Jared Touchin, said Nez also said the governor acknowledged that the state recognizes and respects the sovereignty of tribes to make their own decisions about reopening schools.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.