Bill aims to give control to local school districts to reopen for hybrid learning

Legislature

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Most New Mexico students are coming up on a year of remote learning, but a new House bill being introduced aims to get students back into the classroom before that happens. The bill, which already has bipartisan support, gives control back to local school districts to decide if and when to return to hybrid learning. Representative James Townsend from Artesia is set to introduce the bill.

“I think it is our responsibility as legislators, as parents, and as grandparents on my part, that we get our kids back in school,” said the House Minority Leader. “We have spent quite a bit of time over the last months polling and talking to people all across New Mexico…Without regard to political affiliation, where you live, grandparents and parents want their kids back in school. It’s almost 70%.”

The bill deems schools as ‘essential’ for taking care of kids’ academic and socio-emotional needs. It gives control to local school districts to confer with health officials and decide if and when their schools should move to hybrid learning. It also offers an all-virtual option for parents who’d like to keep their kids’ learning remote.

“We ought to push the control to the local level, let those elected officials, those school board members who know their capacity, who know their communities, and they’re going to get their kids back in school safely. Those are the ones, those people right there, they’re the ones who will make darn sure that it’s safe. Because those are their kids,” Rep. Townsend said.

Last semester the New Mexico Public Education Department allowed school districts to reopen in a hybrid model, kindergarten through 5th grades, after meeting state guidelines and only if their county was in the green. This semester, only those schools who have already done a hybrid model can return to a hybrid model, despite being in a county in the red level of risk. For example, Mckinley County has its elementary schools reopening despite the county having one of the highest infection rates in the state.

“Other counties whose schools were allowed to open, but those schools remain open, their data is now worse than the counties where the schools never were allowed to operate. So, it’s really a head-scratcher for superintendents, for educators and the parents of families who really wish their kids were back in school,” Dennis Roch, Superintendent at Logan Municipal Schools and President of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association, said. He said he would like to see control go back to the local school districts.

“It’s certainly clear that the governor, any state elected official is going to need to have the power to respond quickly to an emergency like the pandemic that we’re facing now. But, it’s also critically important that the ultimate local decision exists. The local authority exists to be able to return kids back to an in-person learning model safely,” he said.

The House bill is already getting bi-partisan support. Representative Candie Sweetser is set to sign onto the bill. “Our main objective is to get students safely back in the classroom. I feel the concept of returning local control back to the district is going to be our easiest and our fastest way to have that happen…because districts understand the technological challenges that their students are facing and they understand the technological challenges that their teachers are facing,” she said. “Many, many times the complaint that we have is that local school districts don’t have enough control and they know their students and staff best. So, I think this is the measure to say we hear you, we are listening to you, we understand your concerns and we want to safely get students back in the classroom as quickly as we can.”

Legislators agree the bill is not a knock on the state, but a way to ‘expedite’ the process of getting students back to in-person learning safely. “I want to give credit to PED and to the administration for doing everything they can to work to get the students back in the classroom. I just think returning local control would help expedite that process,” Representative Sweetser said.

“We tried. We tried desperately and I don’t, I’m not belittling anyone for trying, they tried. But kids of that age need more than just a monitor in their screen,” Representative Townsend said.

He said he plans to file the bill early next week. Last week, PED Secretary Ryan Stewart told KRQE he hopes to re-examine the guidelines and expand eligibility for more schools to move into the hybrid model as early as this semester, but did not say when that change could happen.

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