ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The state’s largest school district is delaying the vote on a hybrid re-entry plan until at least Feb. 17 when they meet again. At Wednesday’s board meeting, the Albuquerque Public Schools board president says they’ve had no shortage of feedback and input from local families about in-person learning leading up to the vote.
“Board members have had literally thousands of emails from you all. Great input and we greatly appreciate that and we know that all of you would love to have a few words to say,” Board President Dr. David Peercy stated.
There are still a number of concerns with everything from the schools’ HVAC systems to hiring bus drivers. However, if the plan is approved, some students could be back in less than three weeks. “This will not be school as normal,” said APS Interim Superintendent Scott Elder. “Parents have to be aware of that.”
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Elder says the district is ready to go back and hoped the board would agree. However, many members still had a lot of questions like if teachers can return voluntarily. “What are the liabilities?” asked board member Yolanda Montoya-Cordova. “What’s the risk we’re taking on as a result of that?”
Another question: would they have enough teachers? That also posed the next question: can they even force teachers to come back if they’re under contract?
“I’ll be honest,” said Elder. “I do not think we would have enough teachers to satisfy the request of all the students.”
“Isn’t the law just pretty clear that if you have a contract, you have to follow it?” asked board member Peggy Muller-Aragon. “So wouldn’t the teachers have to come back?”
Another big hurdle to discuss is getting school buses to transport students to the classroom. Once a date is established for re-entry, they need at least 30 days to notify and hire drivers. “What I think this means is we need to consider returning prior to having transportation,” said Elder.
Last week, APS said the re-opening plan aligns with the one they announced back in December. If the plan had been approved, the district would bring back teachers after Presidents’ Day. Feb. 22 would bring 25-percent of students back, alternating with last names A-E on Monday-Tuesday and last names M-R Thursday-Friday. The other half of students would go in-person the following week on March 1, with last names F-L Monday-Tuesday and last names S-Z Thursday-Friday. Starting March 8, they would go to 50-50 hybrid, alternating throughout the week with students A-L attending Monday-Tuesday and students M-Z attending Thursday-Friday. Wednesdays would always have distance learning. However, now since it has been tabled, it’s unclear if those dates will be shifted as they consider moving to small groups of re-entry.
Still, Elder says for the plan to truly succeed, all staff needs the chance to get the vaccine, including custodians and bus drivers. During a 45-minute public comment period, opinions were split. While some teachers say they still want to stick with distance learning until a vaccine is available, others want to go back, including some who haven’t stopped in-person learning for special needs.
“Society has learned to expect us to make personal sacrifices for our students,” said Kelly Dutro, a teacher at Manzano High School. “We will not make more sacrifices for a haphazard plan that will disrupt students’ learning and risk the health of our community.”
“As a teacher who has been teaching in-person since September, I can echo the findings in these studies,” said Kari Healey, a special education teacher at Carlos Rey Elementary. “In a zip code hit the hardest, we have no on-campus COVID cases.”
APS parent Aaron Burnett said his family is ready for his three elementary-age kids to get back to the classroom. “It’s unfortunate because New Mexico is last in education in the United States. We’re number 50 and any additional day these kids spend out of class is a disservice to them,” Burnett explained. “We’re absolutely ready for our kids to go back to school. We have a Kindergartener, first and third-grader and this is really starting to affect them, not just their education but their mental well-being.”
Burnett added he’s frustrated by what he’s calling a lack of transparency by the district board. He claims most board members are ignoring parents’ emails like his, urging them to reopen as soon as possible.
Wednesday morning at a legislative education committee meeting, the Public Education Department Secretary Dr. Ryan Stewart acknowledged that large districts will likely have different re-entry timelines because they need to figure out logistics like staffing, busing, and meals. Stewart also mentioned that districts have to be back in the hybrid model for two weeks before students can participate in school sports.
Albuquerque Fire Rescue said it is working with APS on getting the schools ready before they can reopen. They couldn’t say how many schools have been inspected by the fire marshal so far to make sure their set-ups are COVID-safe. During the board meeting, Elder mentioned they hope to have the school inspections complete by Feb. 12. APS says while the hybrid plan is in place, they’re prepared to do what it takes for the board to move forward.
“No matter what you come up with, we will adapt,” said Elder. “We will overcome, and we will get it done.” With the possibility of starting before there are school buses available, the district says they haven’t heard from parents on the capability to drive their kids to school. However, they say they’re looking into getting that feedback.