The New Mexico Public Education Department hosted a virtual town hall Tuesday to answer teacher questions about new guidelines for re-opening schools in the fall based on a phased approach dictated by public health conditions.
"We are talking about entry into the schools, but we want to keep New Mexico safe. We want you to know that that is going to be the guiding principle," said said Lt. Gov. Howie Morales.
Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart said the state's goal is to go back to full-time in person learning as soon as possible. But even at full reopening, he said, PED will continue to provide distance options for teachers and students who are at high risk of contracting the virus.
The department has help from Los Alamos National Labs to model the impact of re-opening schools on the spread of COVID-19 and determining which phase of reopening is most appropriate.
While the guidelines offer a relatively clear path forward, the situation seemed far less certain as officials attempted to answer questions from teachers.
One teacher asked what educators can do if their school or district is not enforcing PED guidelines. Stephanie Ly, an executive board member of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, answered that teachers should contact their unions, which have which have the local autonomy to bargain with districts for the safety and rights of the teachers they represent.
Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association of New Mexico, answered in a similar vein to a question from Renee Romero, a kindergarten teacher at Tombaugh Elementary School in Las Cruces, about what teachers should do if they contract the virus. Call your local union, she said, adding that teachers will likely have to use their sick leave as they would for any other illness. Morales later said additional sick leave was something the state was looking further into, though he did not provide more details.
When Erica Guaba, a high school science teacher at West Las Vegas High, asked how teachers are expected to prepare for the double workload of creating one curriculum to teach in the classroom and a second curriculum to teach online, Deputy Education Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment answered that the situation will require a "mental shift" towards thinking of this as "the new normal" rather than a "double the work," calling it an opportunity for teachers to learn to plan as teams and rethink rigid structures, such as grades and assessments.
Parr-Sanchez added that teachers could work with each other to come up with creative solutions such as sharing workloads or students.
They said the state will be working on a plan for childcare during the remote learning days for students whose parents work full-time, which could include arrangements with local daycare centers and programs such as the Boys and Girls Club.
PED will offer professional development and training for teachers struggling to meet the demands of the new system, and hopes to offer stipends of some kind or encourage school district to cough up the funds to pay.
Stewart summed up the situation best in a single sentence.
"We know that we are walking into the unknown," he said.
Later, he did it again: "This will be the single most different year in education that all of us have ever seen and are likely to ever see again."
The guidelines released last week offer a three-tiered approach that moves from red—high risk and remote learning, to yellow—moderate risk and hybrid learning, to green—low risk, full-time in person learning.
While in the hybrid learning phase, schools will be required to keep classrooms at 50% capacity and space children six feet apart, but there are different options for schools as to how to best accomplish this. That could include alternating weeks of in person instruction and remote instruction for groups of students, or half the student body attending in person Monday and Tuesday while the other half attends Thursday and Friday. A third option would open up for full time in person learning for younger grades and for students with special needs, while older students continue remote learning full time.