Even if teachers choose to stay remote, every Santa Fe public school will open its doors to students on Monday Feb. 22. The district is moving ahead with plans to open schools in a voluntary hybrid model that will look far from normal for the fraction of students who will come back—though half of those who wanted to return are still shut out of schools.

As of Friday, at least one teacher volunteered to return to all but five of the district's 28 schools. Tesuque Elementary, Salazar Elementary, Piñon Elementary, Kearny Elementary, E.J. Martinez Elementary schools will open without the teaching staff.

In schools where no teachers volunteered, Superintendent Veronica García reiterated to administrators in Thursday's school board meeting, "Unfortunately, I hate to tell you guys, but the leadership will have to make it work and we're going to try to figure out how to support you."

At every school level, students are not returning to "normal" classes. In many instances, students will gather in "cyber cafes" where they will have access to the internet, technology and adult support. In some cases, when teachers are available, students will attend in-person lessons but they should not expect to see all of their classmates. García tells SFR the district wanted to "make sure kids have social emotional support," even if the day-to-day looks different from what students expected.

Against district expectations that more students would respond, only one-third of Santa Fe's 12,500 students expressed interest in returning to in-person learning, García reported on Thursday. Of these 4,000 wanting to return, 1,990 are elementary and middle school students placed on a waiting list to join in-person lessons when it becomes feasible.

As of Thursday, 1,774 students—14% of the district total—are joining 290 teachers and staff members in classes on Monday. That number comprises about 20% of the total school site staff, according to an SFPS spokesman. For those younger students who expressed interest in returning to school, principals determined eligibility based on need. At Milagro Middle School, Principal Brenda Korting developed a priority system to target students most severely disadvantaged by virtual learning.

"We have criteria…students that haven't had the internet, so if you've struggled with internet accessibility, special education students, so if you want to come back and you have IEP needs, we certainly want to meet those. We're also looking at students with attendance problems and are failing, have more than two Fs," she says.

But the number of spaces open to students is contingent on the number of staff returning, says Piñon Elementary School Principal Janis Devoti.

"Right now I have five staff members. And those aren't necessarily teachers," says Devoti. "We're spread thin. The district has been very, very helpful. They're trying to get a sub so that the assistant principal and myself—we are among those five right now—can do a little bit more of what we need to."

At Aspen Community School, every 4th to 8th grader who requested to come back into the building on Monday can do so under the supervision of the four returning teachers and staff. Principal Tina Morris tells SFR of her decision was to target older students in the school, "who are better able to self regulate," while learning in the "internet cafe" environment that her school will implement next week.

Secondary schools tell a different story, "We have no one on waiting lists at the high schools," said García.

García cited several reasons for the unexpected low interest at the high school level. "When the students found out, 'Well I'll be in the A cohort and my friends are in the B cohort, I don't necessarily want to come back. I'd just rather stay home if I can't really hang with my friends. Or not all of my teachers are gonna be back and I thought…it would look like life like normal.'"

In addition to pervasive hesitancy over safety, older students and their families would prefer to wait until teachers return in mass when vaccinations are available. "I don't think it really sunk in, what hybrid meant," said García.

Schools hope to draw students back with extracurricular activities. Though under strict guidance from the New Mexico Activities Association, schools must adhere to certain parameters to run these programs. These recently updated guidelines stipulate that schools open in a hybrid model can begin activities only after a 14-day waiting period. Schools that report a new of COVID-19 case will have to wait out that time frame before resuming activities.

While the district made efforts to ensure buildings are safe and guidelines are clearly outlined, the hesitance of both students and staff suggests that safety concerns still run high. With teacher vaccinations seemingly around the corner, those who are able to maintain the status quo are choosing to shelter in place.

"I had half the staff here in the fall. And now the teachers have said we will come back but we need our vaccines…As long as it's a voluntary model from the collective bargaining, the teachers want to be vaccinated. There are more parents that want it than we're able to handle it right now," explains Devoti.

Korting is optimistic about the coming months, "We're hoping that as the vaccine becomes available more teachers will come back and we'll be able to add more students and the students that are there will be able to go to more classes but we are starting out small. And that's OK. We'll get everything up and running but we just don't have a lot of teachers coming back now."

Sabra Romero, the volunteer coordinator with SFPS, tells SFR that schools will "continue to recruit volunteers," which will enable schools to expand programming and build confidence around the district's hybrid model.

Not all school leaders are anticipating a return to normalcy so soon. In Thursday's meeting García spoke of families' hesitancy to return to school, "I think it may present some issues even into next fall if parents are given the option, let's say, to stay on remote. It's going to be a while even with the vaccination before we see kids in school five days a week."