100% of teachers return to rural Northern New Mexico district

James Barron, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·6 min read

Feb. 28—OJO CALIENTE

Rena Stone admitted she was nervous on the first day Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools reopened for hybrid learning Feb. 22.

Stone, a 15-year veteran English/Spanish teacher for Mesa Vista Middle and High schools, was concerned about her health in the classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since she has underlying conditions. But there she was, one of 57 teachers and staff members who returned to educate students.

Stone conducted her classes and interacted with students and colleagues in a safe, socially distant manner.

"I try to make myself as safe as possible," Stone said. "I encourage my kids to do so and my colleagues to do so. I wash my hands and I keep my distance."

While Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools saw only 95 of its 237 students back on campus last week, all 57 teachers and staff members in the district returned. It's a stark contrast to other districts, including Santa Fe Public Schools, which had only 290 out of 1,087 teachers and support staff members volunteer to return to school last week. Other districts, including Albuquerque, have opted to stay in remote learning.

Richard Apodaca, principal of the district's secondary schools and Ojo Caliente Elementary School, said the 100 percent buy-in was by a concerted effort. He said he and the rest of the administration voiced a steady mantra with teachers that began last summer — let's get the students back in the classroom.

That meant al the teachers and staff members would also need to return, Apodaca said.

"We told them the expectations of the district — and this came down from the superintendent [Albert Martinez] and went down through me — was that we wanted to do what was best for the kids," Apodaca said. "We saw that remote learning wasn't working for us."

Apodaca said online learning did not work for the rural districy about an hour north of Santa Fe due to the inability to provide stable internet access to students who lived in its remote areas. The Mesa Vista district covers part of Rio Arriba and Taos counties, and teachers and students come from as far north as Tres Piedras and as far west as Abiquiú.

Apodaca said some regions lack the required internet connectivity and speed for students, and the district uses its bus system to send assignments and homework to remote-learning students.

Stone said one of her students arranged a deal with a neighbor so she could access the internet twice a week so she could log into classes. Ben Sandoval, who has two children in the district, said he had to bring his daughter to his work in Española to provide her with a stable connection.

"We were first in line to say, 'We want our kids in the classroom,' " Sandoval said. "We felt confident that the work the school put in was significant."

But district leaders needed teachers to buy into their plan. Martinez formed a reentry committee in the summer and the district regularly held meetings with the community to provide updates and receive feedback. Apodaca said the group comprised administrators, teachers, parents, union leadership, health officials and community members to provide as many different perspectives to make sure no voice was left out of the decision-making process. Stone was one of the committee members.

"We were very proactive," Martinez said. "We have a great community and they appreciate us listening to their concerns."

Stone said Martinez and district administrators were very understanding and respectful of everyone's opinion regarding reopening, and she never felt coerced into returning to the classroom. However, she added they also made it clear that any teacher who formally requested a waiver from in-person teaching had to provide medical records and a doctor's note. She decided not to go through the process.

"I just felt like, 'Why?' " Stone said. "My doctor has other things to do than write my principal a note."

While the district wanted all of its teachers and staff to return, Apodaca expected some of them would apply for a waiver.

It didn't happen.

"We were a little surprised that when we talked about it, we didn't get any blowback," Apodaca said.

Victor Coronado, a middle and high school history and Spanish teacher, said he had no qualms about returning.

"For a teacher, it's ... like a fish to water — you gotta love being in the classroom," he said. "This is where we live. We spend most of our times in these rooms. If you don't like it, you shouldn't be a teacher."

Still, the district did its part to ensure a safe learning environment. It instituted strict guidelines for everyone who entered its facilities. Temperature checks are a constant, as Apodaca estimated some students are checked up to six times a day. Upon entering the main building, students and teachers must use hand sanitizer stations. Visitors are forbidden, unless approved by a principal or administrator, and security guards enforce that policy.

Protective plastic partitions are on every desk, and custodians immediately clean classrooms when students and teachers leave. Teachers and staff members have face masks, face shields, thermometers and even gowns at their disposal. Apodaca said the district upgraded its heating, ventilation and air conditioning system to the highest level.

Martinez and Apodaca proudly boasted the district had no coronavirus cases when elementary school students returned Sept. 9 for 10 weeks of hybrid learning in which they were in the classroom twice a week and learning remotely the other two days. Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools operates on a four-day-a-week schedule.

Emma Madrid, a custodian who has two of her three children on a campus, said the communication from district leaders has been clear and concise.

"They let us know what is going on," Madrid said. "Even if someone has had contact with someone who had COVID, they let us know that."

When the district opened all its schools last week, the payoff came in the form of students engaging teachers and their peers in the classroom, as well as the more than 60 percent of students who remain online. Because fewer than 50 percent of the students opted for hybrid learning, Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools can offer those students four days at their respective schools since there is no need to separate them into two groups.

The reward for many teachers was the expressions under mask-covered faces.

"They get that connection," agriculture teacher Connie Lujan said. "They get to talk to you. They respond to you. The boys, they're laughing and getting to joke around and talk to each other. It makes a difference, because seeing their faces online is just sad."

Even Stone admitted she has not yer experienced some of her concerns about risky behavior and potential exposure to the coronavirus. Some students have teased her about "getting the 'rona," Stone said, but conversations with students, teachers and staff have been cordial. It has encouraged her to think hybrid learning just might work.

"Every time there is a big change in a routine like that, it kinda tends to be wonky at first," Stone said. "But if it keeps going like this, I think it will be OK."