Shirley Montoya’s three grandchildren plan to continue learning online for the remaining five weeks of the school year, though not for lack of missing their teachers at Salazar Elementary.
“I’m hoping at the beginning of [next] year to go ahead and send them back to school. They do miss school, we all do miss school,” Montoya tells SFR.
Rather than risk bringing the virus home—where vulnerable adults live with Montoya and her grandchildren—they’ve decided to wait until everyone in the house receives the COVID-19 vaccine. With each family in Santa Fe schools making individual, calculated decisions whether to return or stay remote, the breakdown of who’s coming back points to familiar, troubling trends seen here and across the country.
Santa Fe schools serving populations with the largest number of white students and the lowest number of those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch reported higher rates of in-person learning in the district. In some cases, these schools reported at least 20% more students back in the classroom than the average across the district, which was 46% as of April 23, when the district shared data with SFR. The proportion of students returning to in-person learning for schools serving wealthier parts of Santa Fe follow trends observed elsewhere in the nation.
SFR determined the rate of return for each school using attendance numbers from April 23 and looked for associations between these percentages and demographic information including: racial and ethnic breakdown, percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch and an estimate of average family income using census data.
In an interview, Superintendent Veronica García concedes “there have been certain zip codes hit harder [by COVID]” and it comes as no surprise that low-income communities—-where students often live in multigenerational and multi-family homes—-have lower rates of return.
Despite an awareness of the pandemic’s disparate impact, the district did not target specific communities to encourage equitable returns to the classroom.
To identify these disparities, James Lujan, says chief equity, diversity and engagement officer, SFPS would need to track and study the data.
“We love all of our students and we want everyone back. If the data is looking differently...I go back to family choice,” Lujan tells SFR.
The district maintains that families received sufficient communication—in English and Spanish—about reopening and safety measures taken by schools.
While the negative impact of the past year on their child’s education evenly concerns parents across racial and ethnic groups, fear of the coronavirus as schools reopen doesn’t affect all families equally. A December CDC report concludes that families of color maintain more hesitancy about reopening schools than white, non-Hispanic parents.
The report points to “existing structural inequalities” in health care access and housing, among other factors, that place racial and ethnic minority communities at heightened risk for adverse outcomes from COVID-19. While parents weigh the benefits of in-person learning against the risk of the virus, the findings indicate that more vulnerable families, including socioeconomically disadvantaged families, err on the side of caution.
Most public elementary schools in Santa Fe have more students of color than white students, further highlighting the juxtaposition SFR found in the data.
Of schools with a racial makeup of 35% or more white students, each reported well over half of their pupils back in classrooms by April 9. Since then, as students continue to trickle in, that number of returning students went up from 65% to 72%.
Interactive Map: Roll over a school to see the percentage of students who have returned, along with demographic and income data.
Kathy Primm, president of the Carlos Gilbert Elementary parent teacher association, tells SFR that school leadership and staff have “gone above and beyond...to make the guidance from the district and Public Education Department a reality on the ground.” Additionally, weekly e-blasts to families factored into parents’ decisions to send their children back, Primm says.
On the other side of town, schools with 80% or more Latino students reported that less than half of their students choose to return. Though not all these schools follow this trend—Cesar Chavez Elementary and Edward Ortiz Middle School had respectively 59% and 56% of their students show up to in-person learning last week.
Of the almost 12,000 students enrolled in SFPS, more than 70% qualify for free or reduced-price lunches—an indicator of relative income. For some schools in the district, their entire population qualifies for this benefit; of these 13 schools, all but five reported less than half of their students are back in classes.
By contrast, schools reporting the highest percentages of students returning to in-person classes serve populations where more than half of the families do not need help paying for lunch.
SFPS school zones don’t overlay exactly with census tracts SFR used to estimate the average family income of schools, but zones’ proximity to these tracts suggests that schools serving wealthier families had larger numbers of students returning to in-person learning. With the wealthiest tracts concentrated in the eastern parts of Santa Fe—in and around downtown—these schools reported more than 65% of their students back in classes.
Andel Trujillo, site coordinator with Communities in Schools at Salazar Elementary, tells SFR that the multi-faceted reasons families cite for remaining online vary. While no two situations sound alike, there remains lingering hesitancy in some families to send their children back into school buildings despite the measures taken by SFPS.
“Each person is different, and they have their different reasons. Obviously some overlap—a lot of it is the health concerns,” Trujillo tells SFR. “Trusting within the system, too: knowing that the system hasn’t always been there to support certain families and so making sure they feel confident that they can send their kids to schools, that schools will take care of their kids.”
Trujillo and Communities in Schools have advocated for families to receive the vaccine. But “families are busy,” and she hasn’t reached all the parents in the school community. Trujillo explains this dissemination of knowledge entails “explaining the process of vaccination, reminding families regardless of immigration statues or insurance you can get the vaccine, because that can be a hesitation for a lot of people as well.”
With communities of color experiencing more adverse economic and health consequences of the pandemic, these data indicate that Santa Fe is not exempt from educational inequalities exaggerated by the pandemic.
Robin Noble, principal of Kearny Elementary, tells SFR that “our community has been impacted by COVID and I know, not in high numbers, some of our families have lost several family members...particularly over the holidays when we had that big peak.” Noble acknowledges the demographics of the Kearny community—whose zone overlaps with some of the lowest income tracts in the city—might have contributed to their lower rate of return. Though feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive.
“There’s still a lot of fear around health issues and being vulnerable. Just because the adults on campus are vaccinated, the children are not vaccinated yet,” Jule’ Skoglund, principal of Salazar Elementary tells SFR. “Our families might be a little more fearful because there isn’t as much opportunity and that makes people fearful. Just the opportunity to get vaccinated, opportunity to get informed about how to get vaccinated.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story used the wrong pronoun for Trujillo and we corrected the error.