ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Almost two years into the pandemic, the state is still trying to grasp how much the closures and remote learning set New Mexico’s kids back. KRQE News 13 investigative reporter Gabrielle Burkhart spoke with parents, teachers, and the New Mexico Public Education Department to find out how far behind the state’s schoolchildren are.

KRQE Investigates

“We just love this area,” Jane Gamble told KRQE News 13, referring to her home in the east mountains, about 20 minutes outside of Albuquerque. “It’s just a quieter, more slower-paced living.”

The rural community of Tijeras is where friends Gamble and Amy Owen are raising families. “In general, they really like school,” said Owen, of her two young children. Both Gamble and Owen’s kids attend A. Montoya Elementary, part of Albuquerque Public Schools.

But over the past two years, life in the pandemic has highlighted some of the drawbacks for rural communities. “Oh my gosh, I could just like cry right now and I’m not exaggerating, but it was so hard,” Owen, a Beekeeper, recalled having two young students in remote learning.

Owen has 10-year-old Claire in the fourth grade, and six-year-old Theo in the first grade. “It was his kindergarten year and it was on a computer, and kindergarten is definitely not conducive to online school,” said Owen.

When asked if she believes her children suffered socially or academically, Owen replied, “Yeah, I think they’re definitely behind academically. Socially, I think they’re also behind.”

Consequences of school closures

The two friends experienced what parents all over New Mexico experienced. “There were days in which I could not get him logged in,” explained Gamble. “He was not doing well socially or emotionally. He was struggling, he was isolating himself a lot.”

Gamble’s fourth-grade son Kayden has autism and struggles with changes in routine. His individual learning plan which includes speech, and behavioral support services, often went out the window.

“With the internet connection going in and out if we had a storm, wind, whatever,” Gamble recalled, “There was a lot of days in which I said, ‘Shut it off. We’re done. We are going to go play.'”

There’s no question pandemic school closures were tough on most families. It’s why this year, the focus has been on keeping kids in the classroom. Now, families across the state are getting a glimpse of just how far behind New Mexico’s schoolchildren are.

A recent Legislative Finance Committee report states COVID-related school closures have cost New Mexico students anywhere from “four months to more than a year of learning,” with younger and at-risk students suffering the worst.

National data from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which includes New Mexico students, shows the average student performing 3-6% worse in reading and 8-12% worse in math, compared to how students in the same grades measured pre-pandemic.

“Although achievement gains were lower for all student groups, growth was notably lower for Native American, Black, Hispanic, low-income, and elementary-grade students,” the report states.

“There’s two groups of students that I’m particularly concerned about,” explained Dr. Gwen Perea Warniment, Deputy Secretary of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment for the New Mexico Public Education Department. “The first is early childhood. Anywhere from Pre-K through Third, even Fourth Grade.”

“That’s a primary grade band where learning to read, early mathematics, those things in academics and socially are very much impacted,” Perea Warniment said. “The second, though, is actually at the very high end, and those are our juniors and seniors.”

Perea Warniment is also a mom of a high-schooler. “It’s impacting us all,” she said.

No testing in 2020

The NMPED oversees 89 school districts and nearly 50 charter schools statewide. In 2020, the state skipped standardized testing for students.

This fall testing is encouraged, but not required. When asked if the NMPED has a pulse on how New Mexico kids are doing academically this year,” Perea Warniment replied, “No. I should say yes, and no.”

She said schools have a lot of discretion when it comes to curriculum and how they handled learning during closures, and then COVID-related quarantines. “We know that probably we are a little bit behind where we would typically be,” Perea Warniment said.

Communication isn’t what it once was

Teachers are juggling a lot, expected to check in with students both in and out of the classroom. “I think teachers are just really stretched thin right now. And I can tell because there’s less communication,” said Owen.

Many campuses are still off-limits to parents during class hours, and schools have continued cutting back on in-person traditions. Tack on staff shortages, and parents say communication between teachers and families isn’t what it used to be.

“Our teachers are stretched so thin and there is a lack of substitutes,” said Gamble. “We get the emails asking for subs.”

Since many parents aren’t allowed inside the schools, Owen said the casual conversations that used to take place between teachers and parents during drop-off are no longer. For example, the traditional shared Thanksgiving meal at school with parents and students was canceled again this year, leaving some parents missing that interaction with other school families.

How well a student is doing this year can really depend on how the pandemic impacted that student’s particular home or classroom, highlighting disparities that already existed.

“There’s so much difference among students, much less among schools, much less among districts, right?” Perea Warniment said. “So I think it’s important that we just simply make a generalization and say, OK, we know we’re going to be behind. How can we test this fall and move to growth?”

Will some kids be left behind?

That’s actually what worries Owen the most. “Sometimes I worry that my kids are going to grow up in a world that’s a lot more unequal,” Owen told KRQE News 13. “Because there’s going to be kids that are just so left behind in all of this, and there’s going to be kids that just didn’t skip a beat. So there’s going to be more of that gap in education.”

“There’s going to be kids that are like performing way over here and kids way over here,” Owen added. “How do teachers manage that? And so I worry about how my kids are going to interact in that environment. I think it might be a part of our world for a while.”

New Mexico has shifted its pandemic response from mandating closures for schools with positive COVID-19 cases to now funding more COVID testing so kids can stay in school and engage in activities.

When asked what more the state can be doing for schoolchildren, Perea Warniment replied, “We need to vaccinate as much as possible. That is a huge strategy to moving our entire society.”

“But I think another, maybe a more personal answer is just continuing to support one another. That’s a really important piece in all of this and that’s personally helped me,” Perea Warniment added. “And that’s what I would extend to all of us.”

Preliminary data shows just 10% of eligible students participated in state testing this year, which was optional. Standardized testing will once again be required next spring.