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APS Teachers Face Tough Choices, Especially Those At Risk For COVID Complications

Nash Jones
Math teacher Tara Palomares risks losing her placement at Sandia High School in Albuquerque if she teaches for the eCademy online magnet school this fall due to having a CDC-identified health condition

Albuquerque Public Schools and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation came to an agreement Thursday that all teachers will have the option to work remotely for at least the first month of the semester. The memo adds some clarity to a plan the school board passed last week that says students will go to a hybrid model after Labor Day if it’s safe to do so. But it’s unclear what the public health data will need to look like for schools to be considered “safe.” And teachers with underlying conditions could lose their school placements if they get accommodations to teach online for the whole semester.

Tara Palomares is a math teacher at Sandia High School in Albuquerque who has Type 1 diabetes. She told KUNM she hasn’t even gone to the grocery store since March, because she knows if she got COVID-19, her health condition could make the illness more severe.

Full disclosure: Palomares and the reporter of this story, Nash Jones, went to middle and high school together, though they haven’t been in touch in over a decade.

These days, Palomares is an active member of the Sandia school community. “I am the now senior class sponsor, I’m running a book club for teachers to discuss issues of equity in education, I am part of the technology team,” she said. “I just feel like I’ve really invested a lot into that school personally, especially with my students.”

Now, Palomares may have to choose between the school she loves and her safety. Teachers who have a CDC-identified health condition that puts them at higher risk for a severe COVID-19 illness, or who live with people who are at high-risk, have the option of applying for a remote work assignment for the full semester. If approved, APS Superintendent Scott Elder says the only available option as of now is to teach at the eCademy online magnet school.And that may mean losing their position at their current school. “Well, if we have students at the school that they left, we do have to hire someone to teach those kids,” Elder said. “So that is a possibility.”

That puts teachers like Palomara in a bind. “It really feels discriminatory towards teachers who are high-risk to be asked to leave your current position,” she said.

It's unclear how long teachers like Palomares have to apply for an accommodation, and how the application process, coordinated by contractor REDW, LLC, works. But, as of Thursday, the district says all teachers will be able to work from home starting with required meetings on Aug. 5 and while students are taking classes online. The next phase of the district’s plan, when 50% of students will alternate going to school Tues-Fri, starts Sept. 8 at the earliest.

State guidelines say that hybrid model should begin when COVID-19 data shows that  it’s “safe to move forward.” However, what “safe” means remains muddy. Ellen Bernstein, President of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, says 90% of union members supported a position it recommended to the APS Board.  “The position,” said Bernstein, “was to start in-person after Labor Day if the data shows 14 consecutive days of declining cases in Bernalillo County.” 

Rachel Woods, an English Language Development teacher at Albuquerque High School, is hoping for a higher threshold. She said, “a lot of teachers hope to see the guidelines be 14 days of no new cases in Bernalillo County to return to Albuquerque Public Schools.” Superintendent Scott Elder isn’t sure about that. “No new cases is an interesting thought,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know if that’s even possible. I don’t know what that means, really.” 

Elder says the details are up to the state Department of Health and that he’d like more clarity from the agency. In a press release Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said COVID-19 transmission rates, and capacity for testing, tracing, and health care will factor into when schools can reopen.

But what if teachers without remote assignments still don’t feel it’s safe to be in classrooms when the district says it’s time? Superintendent Elder said that’s “a really difficult question to answer.” “I don't necessarily know what their options are,” he said. “Because at some point, if we’re told school needs to open, then the schools will open.”

Ellen Bernstein with the teachers’ union says she hopes it doesn’t come to that, especially as the state is already short on educators. “I hear every day from people who say, ‘I’m going to have to retire’ or ‘I’m going to have to quit if I can’t keep myself and my family safe.’ And they don’t want to. And I don’t want to see mass retirements. So, that’s not an option. That is a non-option option. We have to keep people safe.” 

Fight for Our Lives, a student-led group, is pushing back on the districts’ plan with a list of demands, including two weeks of no new cases before reopening. The first of their weekly car rallies is set to happen in front of district headquarters Saturday afternoon. 

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.