When Capital High students return to campus next Tuesday, the school day will look—at long last—relatively normal. With the first period starting at 8:40 am, students will follow a normal bell schedule until 3:55 pm, attending in-person lessons except for classes in which teachers are exempt from returning because of health problems.
Schools are in overdrive preparing for students' arrival. The decision to jump back into a pre-pandemic school day came from administrators' intention to salvage what's left of this academic year and prepare students for a successful return in the fall.
"Our freshmen have never been on campus, they don't know what it's like to be a Jaguar. Ending the year strong will help them develop those skills and knowledge," Capital High School Principal Jaime Holladay tells SFR.
While lengthening days and blooming golden bells carry the scent of spring, the reopening of schools feels reminiscent of fall. Holladay forewarned her staff to be on alert for those start-of-the-year details, "Reminding freshmen to wear IDs, you know, things that normally would happen in August will be happening in April. And that's OK."
The district invited all students to return to classes on April 6 for the first time since before Spring Break last year, when schools shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Schools started a hybrid learning schedule in February where cohorts of in-person classes came on alternating days of the week. Now parents must choose between a fully online or in-person curriculum, with hybrid learning no longer an option.
So far, just over half the students in the district—about 5,300—decided to return.
The district anticipates this number will change as vaccine availability expands. Holladay says many families feel hesitant to return prior to receiving the vaccine due to "fear of having their child or family get sick."
Tamara Quintana, a special education teacher at Kearny Elementary, pored over every detail that goes into making the transition from online learning back into the classroom as smooth as possible. The change will be consequential for the students in her kindergarten through second grade class, all of whom fall on the autism spectrum.
"The challenge specifically with special education is the transition of being at home for so long and then coming back into the school building," Quintana says. "But with the routine and with the schedule and the structure we've set up for them, I anticipate a very smooth transition for these kids and I'm very excited to see what we can accomplish in these final weeks."
Kids on the autism spectrum often struggle with social, emotional and communication skills and can have trouble adapting to changes in their routines. The social isolation of the pandemic and frequent changes to the status quo presented difficulties for kids in her class, says Quintana.
She's worked closely with parents to develop hands-on projects kids can do at home, and gained valuable insight into her students' personal struggles. A good portion of her online class time has been spent on life skills such as self-care, hygiene and processing the emotional response to the pandemic.
"Our biggest goal for [special ed] classrooms to begin with is independence," says Quintana. "And so we just want to make sure that no matter where they are, whether it's at home or in the school building, that they practice their independence skills and can do things on their own terms."
Of Quintana's class of seven children, only three will be returning to the classroom. She says these parents want their kids to receive the extra attention and structure available in person. Parents deciding to stay remote raised concerns over altering their child's routine so late in the year.
.Quintana tells her students stories that help them visualize what to expect in the classroom and acclimate them to the idea that they will still have to wear masks and wash their hands frequently, while maintaining social distancing.
"We have to help them understand that it will not look like it did before," she says. "The more they can visualize all of these things, the easier the change will be."
To juggle remote versus classroom learning, Quintana will have educational aides instructing students in person for two hours each day while she teaches online lessons to the other half of the class.
While school leaders express enthusiasm about returning to face-to-face instruction, they also acknowledge that simultaneously managing online and in-person classes will be a challenge.
John Morrison, a Santa Fe High School teacher, says educators will have the option of instructing both groups of students at the same time via live lessons, or allowing students to watch videos and complete classwork at their own pace.
"I don't think anybody's going to be reprimanded for not managing a class online and in their classroom," says Morrison. "It makes it especially difficult for teachers doing synchronous learning. If you're trying to get everybody to do the same thing in class and remotely, that's just that much more challenging."
While lesson logistics consume the minds of teachers, administrators have concerns over the number of staff on hand. At presstime, only 52% of school staff were slated to return to campus on April 6.
"The one challenge that I have that other principals have is actual adequate supervision…we are being stretched thin," says Nava Elementary School Principal Marc Ducharme.
A new revised memorandum of understanding between the district and the employees union signals that only those teachers who are fully vaccinated or who've chosen to pass up the vaccine will return on April 6. The rest have until April 19 to get fully immunized and come back to school.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García tells SFR that while there may be some teachers who have only received the first dose by that date, she expects the majority to be fully vaccinated by mid-April. The state expanded vaccine eligibility to include all educational staff on March 8.
"After the governor prioritized educators, we held a vaccination clinic and we contacted Christus St. Vincent Hospital and gave them our full roster of staff. In total around 2,000 vaccines were made available to the district—that's more vaccines than teachers," says Garcia. "Teachers who have not received full immunization by April 19 are expected to return unless they have a medical exemption… We will have N95 masks and face shields available to keep everyone safe if they feel they need extra protection."
"The big picture here is getting kids back on campus, getting back into the flow so that we're not doing this in August," says Morrison, the Santa Fe High School teacher. "I think that's the primary objective for the next six to seven weeks."
Editor's note: a previous version of this story misstated when teachers are required to return to school. Teachers who are fully vaccinated or who have chosen not to receive the vaccine will be back in the classroom on April 6. Teachers who have received their first dose by that date but are still waiting for the second dose have until April 19 to return.