As New Mexico schools got the go-ahead last month from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to resume partial in-person teaching beginning Feb. 8, revised re-entry plans have come before districts for debate. The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education on Wednesday, Feb. 3, postponed a decision about students going back to the classroom after several hours of discussion. Prior to the board meeting, protesters gathered outside the district's headquarters.
At least 100 APS teachers attended a car rally before Wednesday night’s board meeting, calling for the district to not reopen classrooms until Bernalillo County reaches the “green” level for COVID-19 risk and restrictions, or until all staff who want to can get vaccinated—a position in-line with that of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.
Deanna Vicens has been working professionally in APS classrooms for 15 years. “I have an elderly, handicapped mom that lives with me. I have a 10 month-old baby granddaughter, and I have a daughter who has health compromised issues,” she said.
Vicens said she’s worried about risks to her family if forced back to the classroom before those benchmarks are hit. “It scares me,” she said, “that I could come home and spread something that can be deadly.”
If the board decides to begin hybrid learning before she feels safe going back to the classroom, she said she’ll have to take the risk. “I don’t have the option of just being like ‘Oh, I won’t go back to work. I can stay home. I just have money laying around,’ ” Vicens said. “If they decide this, they’re not giving me an option, I have to return.”
In December, the APS Board approved a re-entry plan that phased students in once the county was in the “green.” April Chavez, a science teacher at School on Wheels High School, addressed the crowd. “I want to say how angry I am to our leadership who, all of a sudden, pulled the rug from under us and completely changed plans,” she said. “We had a safe plan to go back in place. What happened to that?”
Chavez said she empathizes with those who want back in the classroom, especially her students who have barriers to logging-on or concentrating on school work from home. “I’m caught between a rock and a hard place, because I know my students need to get back as soon as possible. They need a quiet, safe place without distractions or without babysitting their little brothers and sisters. I get it,” she said into the loudspeaker. “But, right now, we need to put safety first. How can these students learn if they’re sick, if their family members are sick, or they’re hospitalized?”
Chavez told KUNM that while virtual classes have been challenging for her and her students, she doesn’t think beginning the hybrid model of learning right now will be worth the risk. “When we go back to school, it’s not like they’re going to be in groups working like normal. They’re still going to be at their computer screens, they’re just going to be at school while I teach on a computer screen,” she said. “So, it’s very very similar; it’s not going to make that much of a difference."
Counter-protester Rebecca Struve, who is an APS parent and former teacher, disagrees. She said she’s concerned about student mental health and learning loss while they’re fully remote. “Any change to in-person is going to be an improvement,” she said. “I think it’s important for the kids to have that social interaction, and I do believe that even just a couple days of in-person remediation with the teachers will go a long way.
Struve said she would like to see teachers get access to the vaccine, but that it’s not a reason to keep schools closed. “I’m starting to feel like it’s just kind of an excuse to not have to do the hard work of remote learning and in-person learning,” she said.
Albuquerque teachers union President Ellen Bernstein said on KUNM’s Let’s Talk New Mexico that the board took concerns from all sides seriously in discussing—and eventually tabling—the plan for students to go back in mid-February. “In my opinion,” said Bernstein, “what they ended up with was the fact that there are many things to work out before hybrid is ready.”
Among those is the call for teachers to have access to vaccines before returning to work in-person. APS Board President David Peercy said at a news conference that holding off on hybrid learning until all staff can be vaccinated is up for discussion. “I can’t say that we have to do it,” he said. “But, if you look at the data, saying that we don’t have to have vaccines to come back always has the condition that the community spread is low. And the community spread right now is not low. It’s red.”
Superintendent Scott Elder said the district plans to survey staff to determine how many teachers would be willing to work on-site right now. He also said moving forward with the original plan to open when Bernalillo County reaches the green risk level remains an option the board can consider.
APS administration will pitch a revised plan to the board, who will consider it on Feb. 17. Anyone can attend the meeting virtually and submit public comment.