Serving the High Plains

Official says 12,000 children unaccounted for

Tucumcari Public Schools’ assistant superintendent, citing the state’s education chief, said during the school board’s meeting last week about 12,000 children in New Mexico, or nearly 4% of the total, are unaccounted for during the school year as many districts struggle to maintain enrollment numbers in remote-learning environments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, assistant superintendent David Johnson said in follow-up interview that Tucumcari has only three to four such unaccounted-for pupils, or well under 1% of the total of about 900 students in the district.

After checking with principals and other administrators in the district, Johnson said most of last year’s students who didn’t show up this fall either moved out of the area or are being homeschooled.

Johnson and Tucumcari Elementary School principal Tonya Hodges said that school also is gaining new students almost weekly.

“We’re doing a lot better than many districts,” Johnson said.

Johnson said during the school board’s Nov. 16 meeting the unaccounted-for students don’t log in to teachers’ online classes and cannot be reached by phone, email or text.

School board member Teresa Gonzales said she’s heard about discrepancies on attendance records regarding teachers’ Google-based online classrooms and that more students are failing those classes. In other cases, she said a few students reported missing worksheets from their educational packets, resulting in them being given lower grades.

Johnson acknowledged some students are “tailing off” in their online schoolwork. He said any parent who sees such problems should contact him or superintendent Aaron McKinney.

New Mexico Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said during an online press briefing earlier that day said about 550 students across the state have been referred to the Engage NM program for coaching and emotional support. He said the Public Education Department also is working with other state agencies in an effort to reach those children.

The pandemic has caused a rash of problems for the state’s schoolchildren.

Enrollment has fallen about 10% at most school districts; that includes Tucumcari Elementary, though that number has fallen in recent weeks.

Also, up to 70% of New Mexico students at many districts are failing at least one class in online classes.

Though the PED wants to get more students into in-person classrooms, skyrocketing cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks may prevent that from happening soon. Stewart said “the next two weeks are critical” to continue current education efforts. He said if cases of the virus don’t go down, the state will have “no choice” but to go back to all-remote learning.

Tucumcari, Logan and San Jon are using a hybrid model of in-person and online classes for their elementary students. House, designated as a micro-district of fewer than 100 students, held in-person classes, though it closed from Nov. 10 through Nov. 30 because of a COVID-19 outbreak among at least two employees there.

• During monthly reports by school officials, technologist Patrick Benavidez was asked about the district’s use of Google Meets versus the popular Zoom videoconferencing platform. He said some students’ and teachers’ internet speeds may be insufficient for using Zoom.

Hodges said because a few students live in remote areas with poor internet, they are given the opportunity to pickup instructional packets on Thursday or Friday each week.

Hodges acknowledged “a few scares” at the school because COVID-19 caused several quarantines or prompted doctors’ appointments with staff members.

Middle-school principal Lendall Borden said teachers were being encouraged to use the simplest process to monitor students with their online classes.

Borden said the school held a virtual honors program, with the hope an in-person ceremony can be held later in the school year.

High-school principal Nicole Bright-Lesly also reported teachers were simplifying lessons, though she acknowledged “some failures” with students — many of them not taking the time to watch the online instructional videos before beginning their work.

In other business:at the meeting:

• The board approved a state Rural Low-Income Schools application for $19,796.85 in funds. The application states $2,100 would be used for software and $16,560.85 for salaries and benefits for an English-as-a-second-language teacher. Johnson said the annual program, designed to help rural districts recruit teachers, made its application available nearly six months later than usual.

n The board, without discussion, approved a final reading on an attendance policy for students participating in extracurricular activities.

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