State PED officials answer school reopening questions
July 8, 2020
Teachers peppered state officials with questions during a virtual town hall last week about the Public Education Department’s reopening plan for schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The PED the previous week issued guidelines to public schools that included recommendations for full in-person classes, a hybrid model of in-person and online classes or all virtual learning, depending how bad COVID-19 is in that region.
A PED official said about 3,000 people logged in to the webinar June 30 via the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Among those participating were Education Secretary Ryan Stewart and Lt. Gov. Howie Morales.
Stewart said the PED would let science guide its decisions to prevent the spread of the virus but acknowledged it was “charting unprecedented waters.” He said the agency would “take every single precaution we can” to reopen schools in August.
Morales said New Mexico is “ahead of the game” compared to other states in the region in COVID-19 containment. He said the goal is to not let hybrid learning “go for too long,” but such an approach would be taken if coronavirus spikes in a region.
A teacher from Roswell told the panel she thought exposure to the virus was inevitable and asked: “How safe will we truly be?”
Morales said science has shown a facial coverings or face shields have been “extremely effective” in slowing the spread of the virus.
Stewart said each additional safeguard — such as screenings for high temperatures or symptoms — would further reduce the chance of the virus’ spread. He added the PED had just received 900 thermometers that will be distributed to schools.
Another educator asked what to do if school leaders or parents didn’t follow the PED’s mask mandate. Stephanie Ly of the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico said though districts are given some autonomy with reopening plans, she advised working with the superintendent or PED about the mask matter. Ly also said the PED also suggests staff who are higher-risk with COVID-19 be offered other positions within the school district.
An educator from West Las Vegas asked whether the hybrid model would double planning time for teachers. Parr-Sanchez suggested having a colleague in the school share duties or bank lessons ahead of time.
Parr-Sanchez advised teachers to “start having these conversations now” about those challenges.
“If we wait till August, it will be a mess,” she said.
PED deputy secretary Gwen Perea-Warniment said the challenges would give teachers “the space to learn in a new way” and alter traditional mind-sets.
Mandi Torrez, the 2020 New Mexico Teacher of the Year who moderated the webinar, said: “We can’t be stuck in a traditional model. We have to change. We have to adapt.”
When asked about the lack of internet access for some students, Stewart said the recently passed CARES Act will provide money to buy internet devices.
“We need to take every single step to close the internet divide,” he said.
Stewart clarified that even if an outbreak closes local schools, those buildings still can remain open for teachers who lack broadband access.
He also said such buildings also can be open for special-education students for instruction in small groups.
A Las Cruces teacher asked what would happen if a teacher became disabled from the virus. Mary Parr-Sanchez of the National Educations Association of New Mexico said the state remains committed to treating such educators.
“In the end, our schools are communities. We take care of our communities,” she said. “We will find the best path for you. We will make sure you’re not on a park bench without benefits.”