Report: Fall reopening of schools key for N.M. students

‘I think there’s going to be a lot more working with the superintendents and teacher groups to make sure that we’re all on the same page about where we have possibilities and where we have problems,’ says Public Education Department Secretary-designate Ryan Stewart. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Half of New Mexico's students became disengaged following the state's shift to online classes at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing many schoolchildren to lose three months to a year's worth of instruction time, according to a report from the influential Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday.

"I think it's certain that the pandemic caused significant loss of time," said Ryan Stewart, New Mexico's public education secretary. "When kids miss out over a quarter of a year, even though we had some heroic efforts ... on that short amount of time you just can't replicate the level of depth and intensity when you get to bring kids together and do it every day."

The plan is to have kids back in physical buildings in the fall, Stewart said. But whether that means resuming regular classes to a pre-pandemic extent is still anyone's guess.

Stewart and other education officials say they're still waiting and closely watching to see if COVID-19 cases continue to decline to a level that could allow schools to safely reopen. More likely is that schools offer some in-person instruction and some online class work in a "hybrid" model.

A return to normalcy would be complicated if a resurgence of the new coronavirus came with the return of cold weather. But the impact of continuing to keep schools closed would be even more dire, according to the LFC report, which argues that school closures and online classes during the pandemic could cost students dearly in instruction time, knowledge and even future earnings.

Across the country, at least 57,000 K-12 schools closed or made plans to, the Wall Street Journal reported. But in many districts nationwide, students didn't attend their online classes, districts didn't require students to do any work, old material was rehashed instead of new subject matter and many students lacked access to computers or internet, according to the newspaper.

Those findings tell a similar story to what LFC analysts found in New Mexico: disengaged students; lost time; and worse outcomes for low-income, Hispanic and black students in a state with the worst internet connection in the U.S., said LFC Deputy Director Jon Courtney, who presented the report's findings to lawmakers Wednesday.

Courtney called the discoveries "shocking" - an opinion that was met with zero public feedback from LFC members during a meeting broadcast online.

The study relied on information from the Northwest Evaluation Association, McKinsey & Co., focus groups with parents and teachers, and a survey of 4,170 teachers from across the state.

"While the move to distance learning was unavoidable, the early closing of schools inherently exacerbated summer learning loss," the report said. "Further, certain factors like differing access to the internet, computers, and parental engagement mean that at-risk children will likely start the upcoming school year farther behind than their more affluent peers."

Forecasting data from the Northwest Evaluation Association, which many districts in the state already use to help evaluate student performance, found only 70 percent of typical gains in reading occurred during the pandemic. Improvements in math scores will likely drop 50 percent.

Veronica García, Santa Fe Public Schools superintendent, said in a phone interview the district is closely monitoring COVID-19 data, looking at guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and making a plan for how to likely combine some in-person learning at school buildings and continued online learning after summer break.

"We are working on plans right now and looking at the options based on what happens with the virus. Nobody knows," she said.

But if schools wait to open until January 2021, "students will suffer an additional three to 14 months of learning losses," the report said, adding that the monetary impact of that loss could be anywhere from between $61,000 and $82,000 in lifetime earnings.

New Mexico often used old material, while other states such as Texas and Alabama "sought to maximize the amount of instructional time for students," the report found.

García said Santa Fe students were more fortunate in that everyone was offered an iPad or Chromebook, and the district emphasized new material rather than old.

But she acknowledged the loss of time and educational quality in switching to an online environment, and she said the loss will be more severe for low-income students and students of color.

She said the district will "look at the data" and "leverage technology" to come up with a plan to attempt to make up for the inequity.

Stewart, the public education secretary, said the department will prioritize health when it comes to reopening schools.

"In places where the virus does make it unsafe, we'll certainly prioritize safety of students," and the classroom may be a very different place in September, he said.

"The extraordinary challenges of shifting a complete educational model and a system that wasn't designed to do that ... were apparent and huge challenges," Stewart added. "At the department, we tried to make sure we could focus on getting kids access, certainly not penalizing students when they may not have had access to a device or the kinds of supports some are used to."

Elizabeth Groginsky, New Mexico's early childhood secretary, defended the state's decision to limit online learning for prekindergarten students to 30 minutes a day and argued that parents need to continue educating young children in the absence of more instruction time.

"There's that time to engage with the parent," she said, adding that "we don't want young kids in front of screens for long periods of time."

Regarding children who may not have access to internet or computers, she said families were telephoned and "mailed packets" as part of the "continuous learning plan."

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