Many educators express relief over return to remote learning

·5 min read

Jan. 19—Salazar Elementary School teacher Darlene Fortier's second grade class began Tuesday morning the same way it has since the start of last week: online.

Her students weren't surprised when the district announced at least a weeklong shift to remote learning due to staff absences and COVID-19 test shortages — because most of them spent last week quarantining.

"For my kids, it was a little easier because they were quarantined the week before," Fortier said. "I only had a few students who weren't in quarantine."

Still, during a morning activity on the online learning platform Seesaw that Fortier uses to gauge each student's feelings, one said they were "devastated" about not being at school in person.

Santa Fe Public Schools counted 750 cases of COVID-19 among staff and students between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15. More than 140 of the infections were contagious while on campus, according to the district's online COVID-19 dashboard. The infections, driven by the rapid of spread of the virus's omicron variant throughout the state, has exacerbated an already severe shortage of teachers in the district.

Fortier, who taught first grade last year, moved up a grade at Salazar to maintain connections with her students and to help fill their learning gaps following more than a year of disruptions caused by the pandemic. She was delighted to be teaching in person this fall, she said, but is aware a new year doesn't signal an end to the pandemic.

"Even though a lot of people feel like we're back to normal, we actually aren't," she said. "If you have your class go into quarantine three, four, five times this school year, you're going to lose some ground."

She added: "It's going to be really challenging to assess the students based on that."

Jamie Torres, who leads a highly structured classroom for students with autism in grades 3-6 at Kearny Elementary School, spent part of last week reaching out to parents to get feedback for the next round of remote learning.

"I'm sure parents aren't happy about going [remote]. It put a lot of parents in bad positions if they had to work. It isn't ideal for education," she said. "But right now, staffing shortages are just getting awful."

On Friday, as COVID-19 cases kept many educators home, Torres found herself in a potentially dangerous situation: leading her high-needs classroom alone.

Her educational assistant had quit earlier in the year to take on a retail job, and substitute teachers were sparse.

"I'm very fortunate that for Friday, things were very smooth, and it could have gone really bad, to have that scenario," she said.

Torres, who sits on the executive board of the National Education Association of Santa Fe, has watched educators come and go all year.

Even since the return from winter break, Torres has seen teachers put in 30-day notices.

"It's getting more complicated than just COVID. There's the COVID-19 precautions we need to take, the staffing shortages. I think family, students and staff are on the verge of a breakdown after these last two years," she said.

Capital High School business teacher Juan Acevedo spent Tuesday speaking to a largely blank computer screen. Most of his students who tuned in for lessons had turned off their video cameras and microphones.

"You just speak to a screen without almost any feedback," he said. "They barely speak into the microphone, for technical issues or not."

He added: "At the same time, in my personal case as a father as well, it's a relief to be home and also keep an eye on my kids."

Acevedo's son attends kindergarten at Piñon Elementary School; his daughter is 2 years old.

"It's necessary, but I think it was too late," he said of the district's decision to temporarily shut down campuses.

When teachers at Capital High returned from winter break, he said, those who weren't sick scrambled to help fill in for absent staff. Acevedo has "sold" several of his free periods back to the district to help substitute in other classrooms for at least 10 hours since Jan. 4.

"It was a very tough two weeks before the decision" to go remote, he said. "Everyone is trying to help."

It's those types of scenarios Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham likely was thinking about when she announced during a news conference Thursday a possible plan to send New Mexico National Guard members into public schools — particularly in Santa Fe.

Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez said he has not spoken directly with Lujan Grisham about the idea but is open to it.

"I think all districts can use assistance," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Schools could use not only more substitute teachers, Chavez said, but also additional contact tracers, test-site workers and people willing to pick up stray jobs like recess duty.

The district will announce later this week whether it will be able to return to in-person learning Monday, Chavez said.

He added the district was able to reopen a surveillance testing site for staff that previously had closed due to worker shortages at Premier Medical Group, a state vendor administering COVID-19 tests for public schools.

"It looks a lot smoother than it had been the previous two weeks," he said. "As superintendents, as district leaders, and also our state agencies could not foresee the number of individuals who would be testing."