One week after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that K-12 schools across the state can return to in-person learning regardless of their red to green risk designation, most elementary and secondary students remain at home.
While the announcement came as welcome news to a number of students around the state, many teachers were skeptical, suspicious or downright bewildered about the abrupt about-face regarding convening groups of five or more people while the coronavirus vaccine is still slow to roll out.
“All of the members of the union were surprised at the early date,” Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said.
According to the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED), reopening schools would allow all schools to choose from one of three options for in-person learning.
The first option would allow schools to implement a “hybrid model” and bring back up to half of their students at a time, provided they’re in accordance with social distancing guidelines and organize students into smaller classroom groups.
“The hybrid model allows schools to divide their student population into at least two cohorts, bringing back up to 50% of students at a time. Cohorting cuts in half the number of students who would have to quarantine if one member tested positive for the virus,” according to NMPED.
The second option would see school districts with fewer than 100 students allowed to bring back students at a ratio of five students for every teacher.
The last option would allow districts who are not ready to implement a hybrid learning environment to expand small group instruction to all grades with up to 50% of their students participating at a time.
Bernstein said the union had been working collaboratively with Albuquerque Public Schools and the state Board of Education on a learning model that would take effect after Bernalillo County had met the state’s requirements to be considered at the “green” level for a period of two consecutive weeks.
The red to green risk framework is the state’s county-by-county designation of COVID-19 transmission risk based on pre-established infection threshold levels. A county has to hold the next tier’s infection rate levels for two weeks before it can be moved to the next level.
As of Sunday, Feb. 14, Bernalillo County is in the yellow category, joining 19 other counties in the state who are now eligible for less stringent coronavirus prevention measures.
Still, some educators in Albuquerque remain concerned that it’s too early yet to resume in-person classes.
“When the governor announced that it’s possible for school districts to open as early the 8th of February, teachers here became very alarmed,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said that many teachers felt confused due to the lack of detail and context in the governor’s initial announcement.
Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart released a statement that described the three options for the return to in-person learning and made clear that the return to school was an option, not a mandate.
Another issue of concern for the union and its members was the vaccine and when teachers will be able to receive it.
“A lot of (educators) would just feel better if they could just get vaccinated before they came back,” Bernstein said. “That’s fear, that’s a reality.”
Currently, the state is in phase 1B of the vaccination rollout, which includes early education and K-12 educators and staff.
Once the state is able to vaccinate the state’s 75 and older population, it will be educators’ turn to receive the next batch, Bernstein said.
Matt Salas, a teacher at charter school Mark Armijo Academy who received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, said getting inoculated was a big relief for him but the reopening announcement was shocking. As events to vaccinate teachers were canceled, he felt the governor’s plan was made public with poor timing.
“Vaccinations are the foundation of any decision being made. There has to be clear progress in making sure the schools and physical space are safe,” Salas said. “To ease the tension of it, it goes back to the vaccine. You have to first build that safety net before anyone can go forward.”
Jamie Phillips, a teacher from Jimmy Carter Middle School, said that it would be irresponsible to put children without vaccines at risk.
Pfizer — one of three pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. manufacturing coronavirus vaccines — has a head start on trials to determine whether inoculation is safe for school-aged children, but results won’t be available until at least the end of the summer, according to Ars Technica.
“The vaccine piece of the puzzle (for teachers and staff alone) isn’t the solution by any means. Transmission is still quite possible,” Phillips said. “Oh yeah, the teachers are protected, but the students — good luck. My kids are under 16, so they can’t get vaccinated.”
The science regarding vaccinations for school-aged children is still murky, however. The New York Times recently conducted a survey of 175 pediatric experts who asserted that transmission in the school setting is actually not as simple as previously assumed.
“Many of the common preconditions to opening schools — including vaccines for teachers or students, and low rates of infection in the community — are not necessary to safely teach children in person,” the Times reported.
Public health experts told the Times that in person schooling could be safe as long as “universal masking, physical distancing, adequate ventilation and avoidance of large group activities” were adhered to.
Outside of vaccinations, New Mexico educators are concerned about if physical spaces in schools can in fact provide adequate ventilation and if classrooms can provide enough space to keep students socially distanced for transmission prevention.
“The potential for something terrible to happen just weighs on me all the time ... the unknowns of kids and their families and the increase of spread,” Salas said.
Phillips, a seventh grade teacher who usually oversees the Garden Club at Jimmy Carter, also worried about the detrimental impact reopening schools may have on communities.
“The impact it might have, the community spread that can happen, the students going back to their families and it having a ripple effect … As a teacher, I’m really concerned about what we’re going to do if we lose somebody because we brought them back to campus,” Phillips said.
Natalie Thomas, an educator at Sandia High School, co-organized a “Return to Schools Safely- Park and Protest” that was held the afternoon of Feb. 3 at APS headquarters to protest the reopening of Albuquerque Public Schools. The protest saw over 100 cars, as well as counter-demonstrators.
Over the past three weeks, schools have been scrambling to prepare and despite their concerns are doing what they can to gear up for an imminent return to in-person learning.
“The school is ready, the teachers are poised for whatever comes next and I am prepared to Gumby myself into whatever surprises are revealed this week … Just trying to breathe through it all,” said Anne Marie Strangio, the principal at Lew Wallace Elementary.
The APS school board won’t decide on an official reopening plan until Feb. 17, according to Strangio. APS has delayed their decision to reopen schools until at least Feb. 19.
Lissa Knudsen contributed reporting to this article.
Jasmine Casillas is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jaycasillas
Gino Gutierrez is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @GGutierrez48