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Several bills seek to offset the pandemic learning loss by adding more time to the school calendar

Victor Björkund via Flickr

New Mexico’s long standing education challenges were made worse in the COVID-19 pandemic as chronic absenteeism soared. Forty percent of kids missed at least 10 days of school during the last academic yearand some districts saw that rise to 66%. Lawmakers want to address these issues by adding additional learning hours, but some teachers say that could increase burnout.

House Bill 130 is co-sponsored by Rep. Joy Garratt, (D-Bernalillo), a retired educator, and would make school days longer, rather than adding more days to the academic calendar. It would require every school to meet 1,140 instructional hours annually. That’s up from 990 hours for elementary schools and 1,080 hours for secondary schools.

The Legislative Education Committee found three quarters of public schools and one quarter of charter schools are below that proposed threshold. They would need to add an average of 5-10 days, or up to 23 minutes per day, or a combination of both to reach the required minimum.

Garratt said under her bill, 60 of those hours would be set aside for professional development for educators.

"It honors the important and vital aspect of educator collaboration. To help both the educators be effective, and to help them strategically determine how to help their students" said Garratt.

Garratt said many educators leave teaching within their first five years because they don’t have the support they need, but HB 130 could give them enough time during their day to get things done.

"It shouldn’t be an add-on of a week. It should be recognized as an important part of teacher social emotional health" Garratt said.

Garratt said this bill offers flexibility and is adaptive since how these hours will be used is a school decision based on its needs.

Democratic Senator Mimi Stewart is co-sponsoring the bill and said extending the school year is key to addressing learning loss from the pandemic.

"We have K, first, and second grade students who have not learned to read" said Stewart.

She’s also sponsoring a similar bill, HB 194, which would boost the allotted hours for professional development to 80 in addition to the 1,140 instructional hours.

Stewart said this extra time, combined with the boost in pay last year, will attract new teachers to the profession.

"The salary will be significant. Not only did we increase those three tiers, they are going to get minimum 10 more days of salary. So their salaries are going to go up" Stewart said.

Stewart points to the research presented by the Legislative Education Study Committee that found the more time students spend in school, the more likely they are to score higher on standardized tests. Although the committee emphasized the improvement was modest.

But Kristine Mayle, a middle school teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools, said adding any amount of time to a school day that’s already not working is not the solution.

"The thought of adding 10, 20, 30 days to the school year just seems exhausting to me and it would seriously make me reconsider if I want to be a teacher in this state anymore" said Mayle.

Mayle said that teachers and students alike don’t want longer days and parents have said their kids are also coping with burnout. Fiscal analysis of the bill puts the cost between 169 and 238 million dollars next fiscal year.

"That money would be better spent on social workers, counselors, and then returning our staffing levels back to where they were. I know my school lost a teacher from every single department last year, which caused our class sizes to balloon. So if you want to give students more, they need more time individually with teachers" Mayle said.

Mayle said that students are different after returning from remote learning and that teaching needs systemic changes to create enriching programs that are relevant to young people now.

Mayle also said an APS-wide vote last year found only 20% of teachers and families supported an extended school year.

"I can’t think of another profession where the professionals are trusted less or consulted less than in education. This is what I do all day. Why don’t they ask us what we need to improve it? Because we have the answers in the schools" said Mayle.

Senator Stewart said mandating more learning time will help teachers spend more time with their students. The bills also have the backing of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.

Robert Feuer isn’t buying it, however, even though he’s a union liaison for Highland High School, where he also teaches special education.

"There’s a sense of blame the teacher" said Feuer.

Feuer has started an online petitionto oppose these additional instruction hours and lists both repercussions of the bills and potential solutions.

He said his students are already struggling to come to school now and will only do worse as more missed days will amount to more zeros.

"Why don’t we just wipe the slate clean and think about rewriting bills such as adding teachers, having smaller classrooms, we could have a robust trades program, we can add electives we have lost, and we can definitely use security on campuses when we’re seeing more and more guns" said Feuer.

Reengaging students to solve chronic absenteeism will require more creativity, he said, like alternative paths to college and fostering an interest in skilled trades.

"So what happens in our school system, the student who doesn’t want to go to college ends up not getting to see the education they need to get advanced and they end up not having anything at the end" said Feuer.

Feuer said that education has come down to test scores and core classes and that offering solutions like professional development for educators will not solve years of challenges.

HB 130 is currently sitting in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and HB 194 is in the House Education Committee.

This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.

Taylor is a reporter with our Poverty and Public Health project. She is a lover of books and a proud dog mom. She's been published in Albuquerque The Magazine several times and enjoys writing about politics and travel.
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