New Mexico public schools' distance learning program will be extended until the end of the school year, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced Friday morning.
"This is not a moment that any of us asked for, none of us saw this when we look back a few months, and this is not something that we would wish on anybody. But we know that we are here right now, and in this moment we will continue to stand by our kids even when we are at a social distance. Because they need us more than ever," said Stewart, noting students need to hear the message, "even though we have to be separated that we are not allowing students to lose the full amount of this instructional time. And that all resources we can bring to bear to solve these challenges, we are."
The order to extend distance learning until the end of the academic year comes with some major changes to typical academic programs and measurements of student success, including shifting to pass-fail system instead of the traditional grading system. All athletic events during the academic year are cancelled, while Prom and graduation ceremonies will be postponed.
However Stewart emphasized that the extension for the distance learning order will not jeopardize the opportunity for high school seniors to graduate this year.
Each district may decide on "locally determined demonstrations of competency" for high school seniors, and districts will have leeway to create their own ways for seniors to earn the credits they need to graduate including localized assessments and assignments or applied work experience, he said.
For seniors, the opportunity to demonstrate competency will be extended through mid-June, and students who don't have full access to the academic curriculum online or fall behind for other reasons related to the crisis will be able to make up credit over the summer.
"I want to make sure that we are really clear that no high school senior will be denied the right to graduate due to lack of access to demonstrate these competencies," said Stewart. He added that many national organizations that conduct college entrance exams and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT will have additional offerings during the summer, and many colleges are modifying their entrance requirements in light of the challenges students will face this spring as the virus continues to overwhelm cities across the country.
Schools were closed beginning March 16, which was the week of the regularly scheduled spring break for Santa Fe. The last day of Santa Fe Public Schools is set for May 20.
Making sure districts are equipped to meet the needs of the state's most vulnerable students remains a top concern for state officials. Stewart said all districts will be required to provide alternative strategies and materials for students who live in remote areas and do not have internet access. That state is working to ensure that special education students have the support they need, he said.
Children Youth and Families Secretary Brian Blalock said his department is in close contact with homeless shelters to provide "a safe and stable place for youth to be," with a focus on making sure shelters have adequate food, cleaning, and medical supplies, yet he did not answer how school districts will ensure that these students have adequate academic resources and supports. He said the department is scheduling video chats with youth in foster care at a much higher frequency than normal, and that in person visits will continue when deemed necessary.
Some populations face far greater challenges implementing distance learning programs than others. "There is a huge digital divide on our tribal nations," said state Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo, acknowledging that many students rely on tribal libraries for internet access and that "there is a need for more resources getting out into individual homes." She said there is great concern among tribal leaders, but that the state is working with the tribes to provide more internet hotspots and other resources.
Equity is an issue Santa Fe Public School District officials have been discussing for months leading up to the crisis and is more acute now than ever, according to Superintendent Veronica García. But she also says the district is prepared to face the challenge.
The Santa Fe Public School Board held a virtual study session Thursday night via Google Meet, where board members discussed preparations for the distance learning program, which is scheduled to begin on Monday, March 30. The board also discussed a plan to study equity issues across the district.
In an interview earlier this week, García said the district is preparing a curriculum that will be accessible for most students over the internet. For those who live in more remote areas, the district is looking to set up mobile hotspots and will provide physical learning packets for students in case setting up these hotspots proves to be a greater challenge than expected.
"We're learning as we go," García told SFR, explaining that the plans for content and instruction may change rapidly as the district receives feedback from school administrators and parents about the successes and challenges of the program. The superintendent plans to have conference calls with school principals every afternoon to discuss what is working and what's not.
She says the district does not expect students to sit in front of laptops and iPads for the entire length of a regular school day. Instead, the district plans to provide one period of class time in the morning, followed by a two-hour break and a second instructional period in the afternoon that could include anything from art, music and PE to emotional counseling in addition to academic work.
"I'm asking people to deconstruct, to basically blow up their image of how we typically provide education," García said, "We are all doing our very best to provide learning for all our students, recognizing equity and the needs of select students."
The COVID-19 crisis may shine a harsher light to the inequities that already plague the district, while also unearthing others that have not yet been taken into consideration.
Yet, Board President Kate Noble tells SFR the district's plan to study equity and identify ways of changing the Santa Fe Public School system to better meet the needs of all students—regardless of socioeconomic background, school size, or what part of the district they live in—may have come at a fortuitous moment in time.
"I'm very clear that we need to be super intentional about looking for the good things that emerge out of this because we are going to reinvent education over the next few weeks and other districts around the country are doing it too," Noble tells SFR. "This is forcing us to reinvent the district faster and more profoundly than we would have before."
In February, García presented a framework for the study to the board, which was scheduled to discuss the details at Thursday's study session and take a vote later this spring. Garcia initially anticipated that the study would be complete by January 2021, but the unanticipated disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has thrown the plan for the study into limbo.
"We may be looking at a very different budget picture than we were before," Noble tells SFR by phone. The board decided to discuss the issue again in a month, with a tentative date set for April 30.
In the meantime, the district needs to keep up with the day to day changes presented by the crisis.
"We all just have to breathe, we have to just adapt, but not to get too attached to information because sometimes it changes within half a day, sometimes it changes in an hour," said García at the meeting. "We are doing the best we can.