NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico schools have the green light to get all grades back in the classroom for hybrid learning starting next week. However, finding the teachers and staff to run those classrooms in-person may be the bigger challenge.

Anticipated staffing challenges are expected to affect several districts including Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, and Santa Fe schools. The issues, in part, center around vacant positions and medical exemptions applying to thousands of people working in the schools including teachers and school staff.

According to the district’s website, Albuquerque Public Schools has roughly 6,500 teachers across its more than 140 school buildings. About a quarter of them have documented medical exemptions.

“Albuquerque Public Schools to date has 1,800 teachers who’ve been granted accommodations,” APS Communications Director Monica Armenta said. “That means for medical reasons or health concerns, they will be allowed to continue teaching remotely.”

Armenta says the district has substitute teachers who are ready to assist. She also emphasized how parents should be ready for a different type of school when hybrid learning goes into place.

“When we return back to in-person learning, this is not going to be the experience that everyone remembers, knows, and loves, we are still dealing with the pandemic,” Armenta said. “So things will be different but we’re doing our best to ready address all the concerns of all our students because that’s what Albuquerque Public Schools tries to do, and that is to provide the best educational experience for all students.”

Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education is expected to meet Wednesday morning to discuss a hybrid learning plan and a potential start date. Meanwhile, at a school board meeting Monday, neighboring district Rio Rancho Public Schools discussed some of the hurdles it’s facing with a potential all-grade hybrid learning effort.

The district says it will likely have to hire more nurses, substitute teachers, and educational assistants in order to fulfill a district-wide hybrid plan. It’s also dealing with a shortage of roughly 40 custodians right now – a problem they’re looking to solve by hiring third-party cleaning services.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Rio Rancho Public Schools had 61 instructional staff approved to work remotely due to medical exemptions. 15 additional instructional staff members have applied for exemptions that are now under review. The district says there are also 21 elementary school instructional staff members who’ve been approved to work virtually due to a household member at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Rio Rancho School Employees’ Union President and elementary school teacher Billie Helean said she continues to hear from teachers worried about their health along with the health of their students and students’ families. That concern has been compounded by a lack of vaccinations for most of New Mexico’s education employees.

“It’s not that we don’t want to be with our kids, teachers love children, that’s why we do this, we want to be with our kids,” Helean said. “I love being in the classroom with my students, I love it so much, but at what cost? I said that to you before and I just want to impress upon you that we want to do right by children, yes, we want to educate, but at what cost? To me, personally, it’s not worth the cost of someone’s health or their life.”

Reading a letter from one concerned teacher Monday, Helean said, “This isn’t just about staff, this is about the health and safety of our students and their families. One of my students has lingering effects from having COVID-19 last semester, another student lost his mother to COVID-19. His mother. He’s 12-years old. This really hit home, we cannot be cavalier about this virus.”

Rio Rancho’s school board is likely to vote on a plan to return to the classroom during the board meeting planned for Monday, February 8. The district has set a start date for hybrid learning for middle and high schooler students. However, the district’s elementary students have been immersed in hybrid learning for the last few weeks.

In Santa Fe, the school district is aiming for a February 22 return to hybrid learning. However, they’re planning to make it completely voluntary for teachers and students. The district has more than 600 total teachers, staffers, and school-site employees with medical exemptions that are expected to keep them out of the classroom.