Members of the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education expressed unanimous support Thursday for a plan to begin the school year according to a remote model that will be in place for the first nine weeks of school.
The Santa Fe Public School District and the local teachers union came to an agreement about the plan earlier this week.
Both SFPS Superintendent Veronica García and Union President Grace Mayer spoke in favor of the plan at Thursday's meeting, and all board members likewise agreed that keeping kids out of the classroom at the start of the year is the safest way to go forward considering rising cases of COVID-19.
The reentry plan is part of a package of "reentry assurances" that the district must submit to the New Mexico Public Education Department by Monday, July 20. The SFPS school board discussed the choice to go with remote learning as part of the reentry plan as one piece of the package that included plans for transportation, sanitation, child care, services for students with disabilities and much more.
Board of Education Vice President Lorraine Price voiced support for extending remote learning even longer than the first nine weeks, drawing on her own experience as a survivor of the polio epidemic to drive home the seriousness of the situation.
"As a survivor of an epidemic, I spent three years in my home when I did not go to school. And I survived it….We endure. And we will survive this and come out of this better people," she said.
Board President Kate Noble explained both her support for the remote learning program and her worry about students who do not have adequate access to technology or internet, or who have dangerous or neglectful home situations.
"I am also very, very concerned about gaps and equity issues in a distance situation… it's scary to me, I don't know that anybody can say a time when we've done anything as dramatic as this," said Noble.
The concern that remote learning could exacerbate existing inequities was raised by a handful of parents who had submitted comments read into the record during the public forum, which lasted almost an hour and a half and included dozens of comments from parents, teachers and other school stakeholders.
Almost all comments by teachers and staff included concerns about the health risks of returning to an in-person school model. Comments by parents brought up challenges about returning to school and engaging with students online, childcare, and other issues.
The content of the comments largely reflected the results of surveys conducted by SFPS asking parents, staff and faculty about their priorities and concerns about remote learning, hybrid and reentry models.
A majority of faculty and staff preferred the idea of starting the year with a fully remote model, but parents were fairly equally split between the three models.
At Thursday's board meeting, García presented the details of the survey results, which included demographic data and qualitative analysis of comments submitted.
The board also unanimously passed a new policy to allow teachers and staff to work from home if they fit into two categories—either those who are themselves at high risk, or those who live with or care for someone at high risk.
High risk categories include anyone above the age of 65, as well as a number of preexisting "high risk" conditions that include diabetes but also pregnancy and asthma diagnosed by a doctor.
Teachers with conditions not formally recognized in the policies can submit a doctor's assessment of their condition as high risk to the district for consideration.