SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Educators across New Mexico are preparing to welcome K-12 students back to the classroom full-time now that teachers are becoming prioritized for vaccines and state leaders are offering students the option to study in-person five days a week by April 5.
There are logistics to sort out, from identifying teachers with health risks to rehiring furloughed bus drivers. But on the whole, school administrators told The Associated Press in a series of interviews that they are jubilant.
“We’re ecstatic to get to come back 100%. Not sure we’ll get all the kids back, you know, some will still choose to work remotely, but we’re ecstatic,” said Superintendent Todd Lindsay of the Carrizozo Municipal School District in southern New Mexico.
Pojoaque Superintendent Sondra Adams got the news while on spring break as she was visiting her daughter and grandsons in South Carolina. She spent much of the evening holding remote meetings with staff.
“I have a lot running through my head,” said Adams. “Our buildings are prepared, our staff on campus are prepared.”
Just a few weeks ago, the district decided to stay remote-only and had to tell athletes they wouldn’t have a season. Now she’ll have to survey parents to see who wants to remain in remote learning. She also has to give staff with disabilities a chance to request exemptions from in-person learning. In districts of a similar size, there have only been a handful of requests.
Adams is grateful the district got to skip experiments with hybrid learning, in which teachers were expected to teach students in-person and remotely simultaneously.
“By going full in-person it’s really much easier,” she said.
In the tiny Corona school district in Lincoln County, all 63 students have been attending school in-person full time since September under an exception to the public health order for districts with less than 100 students.
Superintendent Travis Lightfoot said he’s happy that other districts get to return to in-person learning, too. And he wants larger schools to know that in-person learning during the pandemic has been easier than he and his staff thought.
“We were a bit apprehensive of how students were going to react to having to wear masks for the entire day of instruction,” Lightfoot said. “But yet, I think our kids were so excited to get back and to get that social interaction that we really haven’t had any issues with students not complying with safety protocols.”
There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among staff or students at Corona, he said.
With just over 100 students, the Carrizo district didn’t qualify for the exception and has been grappling with hybrid learning.
“We’re ready. Only problem is I’m short bus drivers right now,” he said.
In Las Cruces, the community is mourning the recent loss of Superintendent Karen Trujillo, who was struck and killed by a car while walking her dogs. She was known for guiding the district through multiple crises and building consensus.
It’s unclear how many Las Cruces families want to go back to school in person, and the school board still needs to weigh in on a plan for ramping up in-person learning.
“I think it’s cautious excitement,” said district spokeswoman Kelly Jameson. “A lot of leaders in the district are struggling to provide a plan that keeps everyone happy. That was one of the legacies of Dr. Trujillo — she created a model that addressed every student and every teacher during this unprecedented pandemic.”
She said students are already asking about prom and if there will be graduation ceremonies, but more clarification will be needed from state officials.
There are still questions about higher education.
New Mexico Sen. George Muñoz said it’s time for public universities to quickly reopen in-person learning, noting that public schools have scheduled an April return to classrooms in his hometown of Gallup, a trading post community on the edge of the Navajo Nation that has been badly battered by COVID-19.
He suggested that colleges are locking in cost savings without adequately preparing for in-person learning.
“We will look at numbers and see if they (state universities) are overfunded for the year,” said Muñoz, chairman of the lead Senate budget-writing committee.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.