Parents, teachers and students are split over the decision by the Taos Municipal Schools board to hold some classes in-person again later in the semester.
"Many families are requesting face-to-face services. Many families are requesting remote," said CJ Grace, the principal of Taos High School, and the facilitator of a committee charged with making recommendations to the board. "At the time that this [presentation] was prepared, it was running about 50-50," said Grace.
The board sought to strike a balance between those that feared for the physical safety of students and those that feared for their mental well-being. Its compromise plan would bring students back on campus, but keep them in a single classroom for the entire day.
Caroline Colonna, a medical professional and parent of a high school student, said she was in favor of transitioning to the hybrid model.
"I've seen a lot of not-so-good things happen in my clinic, in terms of parents coming in with kids that are extremely depressed, and some of them suicidal," said Colonna.
"My idea is, when we start this hybrid, we can see what are some of the things we can change, so that by the time fall comes, we can involve the kids in making that model work better for everyone," she said.
But Isaiah Vigil, a junior at Taos High School, disagreed. "I am in full support of the remote model, because I feel like every student in the school should be safe."
"I have had experience with this virus myself. I caught it back in November," said Vigil. "Isn't sending kids to a hybrid model a lot worse than [them] being online?"
The school board voted 4-1 Wednesday night (Feb. 10) to approve a hybrid-learning model of in-person and remote learning, beginning Feb. 22 for high school students and April 12 for middle and elementary schools students.
The plan was approved by the New Mexico Public Education Department on Friday (Feb.12).
The PED recently redefined hybrid learning as having 50 percent of participating school children in-class two days a week full time. During the other three days of the week, those students would continue learning remotely.
The district would allow any child who does not want to return to the classroom to opt out and continue with all-remote learning.
The school board made the decision following recent remarks by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The governor said in her State of the State address Jan. 26, schools could begin to welcome kids back in the classroom beginning on Feb. 8, but that the decision would be left to individual school boards.
Taos County moved from "red" to "yellow" phase Wednesday, Feb.10, as COVID-19 cases declined. A "yellow" phase is attained when a county moves below the 5 percent positivity threshold. The current test positivity rate for Taos County is 2.11 percent.
The four-hour-long school board meeting, which was open to the public for comments, heard from the steering committee and proponents of both sides of the debate -- staying remote and pivoting to hybrid.
The committee included Taos Town Councilman Nathaniel Evans, Taos Federation of United School Employees president Francis Hahn, Taos High School Registered Nurse April DeHerrera, Taos Middle School Registered Nurse Jason Ormsby and others.
"With regard to social and emotional well-being, a lot of people talk about the need to get kids back in the buildings so they can reinvigorate their social and emotional lives," said Hahn. "This is not a clear benefit-versus-drawback. Many students will feel anxious about attending in-person because of the risk of infection."
"As a mom, and as a nurse, I will be keeping my kid home," said DeHerrera, who stressed that small pods could be opened up for kids with special needs.
"I feel like we're all in gear with remote [learning]. All the teachers and all the kids and all the families, this is where we've been for the school year," she said. "I feel like wrapping it up this way is best."
The committee presented survey results and it's final recommendations, which included proceeding cautiously, training staff, setting expectations and providing flexibility to each school in the district
"I think there is the opportunity to consider a staged reopening that could begin with one school, so that we could put all of our planning and our practices into place," said Grace in her closing remarks to the board.
"I'm going to talk about some of the consequences that will affect sports," said Mae LaBella, Taos High School athletic director, during the school board meeting.
"If the school is not in hybrid mode, then our athletes won't be able to participate. That will affect athletics and activities as well," said LaBella. "There is a two-week acclimation period, and what makes that important in athletics is -- the seasons are so short."
The PED stipulated that school districts could return to athletic competition only after they begin hybrid learning, and the New Mexico Activities Association would require a two-week waiting period from hybrid reopening to resumption of competitive sports.
"So if we are in startup hybrid mode -- as an example, on Feb. 22 -- the first game for football would be March 8. If we push [reopening] back another week, then it will be March 15," said LaBella.
"They only have a total of five games they can play," she said. "So the more pushback we do, the less games they are able to participate in."
Fall sports, like football, cross-country and volleyball, would run concurrently with spring sports, like basketball, soccer and spirit. The NMAA has extended the calendar for competitive sports into late June to accommodate the late start of the season.
"Half the districts are going remote for good for the year, and half are trying to do hybrid, like we're thinking of doing," said Lillian Torrez, superintendent of Taos Municipal Schools.
"If they don't have enough teams to play, that will all be reorganized. And the one thing they said is, they're not going to make our students drive long hours," said Torrez. "But if we don't have enough teams, we have to mix and have new ones -- new competition against new groups, because there's only a few groups that can compete."
"We've kept our learning community very, very safe -- we have only had a small number of issues. Some of those, sadly, were around sports activities and gathering for sports," said James Sanborn, school board president. "It's hard to imagine that risk wouldn't continue to be there, maybe even grow, with the ability for teams to travel and play games with other communities."
"This community rallies around athletics," said Mark Flores, vice president of the school board. "It brings people together. It is good for the emotional well-being, the social well-being and the academic well-being of many students, parents, grandparents and the community as a whole."
"I remember when I went to basic training, and my family came to visit me," he said. "One day, I got to see my family. It gave me enough motivation to persevere for the next six months to get back home."
Administrators weigh in
"It takes a bold person to take a position on something like this. There's going to be a faction of folks that are upset, regardless," said Alfred Córdova, principal of Taos Middle School, at the school board meeting. "It would weigh heavy on my conscience to be rushing in for the wrong reasons. I think we would be better off finishing with remote [learning]."
Deborah Branchal, principal of Arroyos Del Norte Elementary School, said she also felt continuing with remote learning would be the safest way to go.
"We have a lot of grandparents that are raising our kiddos, and even if we have small groups or pods, there's that risk of taking just about anything back home," said Branchal.
But Kate Jensen, director at Taos Cyber Magnet School, said with her small-school setting, she favored having students return to the classroom.
"My students are struggling, and I'm struggling to reach them," said Jensen. "I would like to have the opportunity to have small pods, at least those that have IEPs and those that I know aren't working to their potential."
"I hate to be the lone straggler here, after all the great reasons to stay remote, but I think with my situation, it would be nice to be able to have my students back," she concluded.
"I've heard 'rushing' from our superintendent, and I've heard 'rushing' from one of our administrators. I don't believe anybody's rushing," said Flores. "Other government institutions are open and running, and they have a plan in place. They're practicing safety protocols -- temperature checks, small group settings. Taos School District needs to get in line and start working towards that reality."
"What has happened more recently are guidelines specific to reopening and hybrid from this PED Toolkit that are different, and more stringent, than what were in place before," countered Sanborn. "So the 'rush' part is dealing with the moving target of what the state is putting out."
The school board invited the community to weigh in, and dozens of parents, students and others called in with comments. Sanborn held up a stopwatch to keep speakers from going over their one-and-a-half minute time limit.
Delphina Gallegos-Trujillo, a parent of two elementary school children, was in favor of remaining with remote learning.
"We are in a groove. We have things working," said Gallegos-Trujillo. "They bonded with their teachers, and I think right now, as close as we are to the end, to throw them another curveball by changing this up, I think it's going to do more harm than good."
ChrisAnn Jeantet, mom to a first-grader and a third-grader, said her children wanted to go back to the classroom, and that the quality of at-home education was not as good as what they were getting in the classroom.
"I work 40 hours a week. I'm not a school teacher, and I can't give them the guidance that I think they need," said Jeantet.
In all, nearly two-dozen speakers shared their thoughts and feelings about which way the board should vote.
"As far as the powers-that-be are concerned, we could decide all kinds of things," said Sanborn. "We could pick a school, we could pick programs, and say, 'We'd like to have more direct contact on a program or a need-based thing.' We could say, hell yeah, we really want to do all the sports that we can possibly get done."
"We've never really talked in the past about dividing things up based on either grade level or a building," he continued. "But that's because the only hybrid model that was available up until this last round was K-5. So the option to have a hybrid at the high school or the middle school is a recent thing."
The board, which includes president James Sanborn, vice president Mark Flores, secretary Whitney Goler, member Susan Trujillo and member Pascualito Maestas, spent the next half-hour turning over every option they could think of to craft a balanced solution.
School district superintendent Torrez suggested at the end of the debate that the district should move Taos High School to the hybrid model as soon as possible, and move the elementary and middle schools to hybrid learning in two months.
Vice president Flores so-moved, based on that model, and the role was called. In the end, the board voted 4-1 in favor, with president Sanborn as the only vote against the motion.
The plan for re-entry
Following the board vote, superintendent Torrez formalized the proposal and submitted it to the PED, which approved it Friday (Feb. 12).
The plan addresses safety protocols, ventilation, hygiene, cleaning, masks, social distancing, discipline and plans for positive cases. It also addressed student needs for laptop computers, meals, break times, physical education and access to school offices.
Taos High School students willing to return to campus for two full time days of in-person learning would be divided into two cohorts -- one that comes to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and another that comes to school on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be reserved for faculty consultations and deep cleaning of the classrooms.
A school weekday would begin with students arriving at 7:45 a.m. and reporting to their academic support cohort, which would include up to 10 socially-distanced students.
From 8-9:30 a.m., students would receive personalized academic support, and then remain in their classroom for the rest of the day while engaged in online learning.
Students who need tutoring can sign up for in-person academic support outside of regular classroom hours.
Before heading to school, parents should take the temperature of every student. Anyone with a fever should stay home.
Students are expected to observe all mask, PPE and social distancing requirements, and would face disciplinary action if they do not comply.
School bus drivers would limit riders to one student per seat. Buses would be cleaned twice a day and ventilated while in use.
Doors and windows would remain open for fresh air, weather permitting, and HEPA filters would be installed in every classroom, according to mandates by the PED.
Soap and hand sanitizer would be provided at all times, and classrooms and other public spaces would be cleaned according to EPA and CDC guidelines.
Students would be expected to bring their fully charged THS-issued technology devices and charging cords to school with them for in-person instruction.
Grab-and-Go breakfasts and lunches would be made available to on-campus students, with allowances for outdoor eating, weather permitting.
The high school office would be available for students and parents. All persons entering the building must wear a face mask and submit to a temperature check.
Movement to and from classrooms would be staggered among student groups to assure social distancing, while hallway patterns would switch to a one-way model.
Physical education would continue to be a part of students' curriculum, but would exclude any team sport activity.
The school district would continue to cooperate with the New Mexico Department of Health, and would adhere to any requirements to close down a classroom, building or campus in order to protect the well-being of students and staff.
The Taos Municipal School District would notify the community about incidences of COVID-19 cases, while also protecting the identity of affected individuals.