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Santa Fe Public Schools to suspend in-person learning for at least one week to allow spike in COVID-19 cases to ‘settle’

Santa Fe Public Schools will return to remote education starting next week as a record surge of COVID-19 cases infects students, teachers, staff and thousands of others in the state, district officials announced Tuesday afternoon.

The district’s 27 in-person schools will be shuttered starting next Tuesday, when learning resumes following the three-day weekend that ends after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez announced in a written bulletin addressed to families and staff.

Whether schools will resume in-person learning the following week—on Monday, Jan. 24—remains unknown, though the bulletin makes clear that is the district’s intention. It depends on whether “conditions improve.”

Taos Municipal Schools started its second semester online, with a week of remote schooling. The district plans to return to in-person learning next Tuesday.

“We are pausing because, with so many staff—teachers, bus drivers, custodial staff and nutrition workers—quarantining, we cannot currently ensure the safe operation of schools,” Chavez wrote in the message. “Staffing shortages are placing extreme stress and additional duties on those who remain at work. We are currently unable to provide adequate coverage due to the increased number of absences.”

Chavez also pointed to the state’s requirements for contact tracing as a reason for shutting school buildings. Given the sheer number of positive cases, “our state provider cannot currently meet the demand for surveillance testing for staff and Test to Stay for students,” Chaves wrote.

SFPS ended last week with 361 cases of infected students and staff, the highest weekly number on record, according to the bulletin. The count includes people who were infectious both on and off SFPS campuses.

Though the district has typically only posted the number of cases of those infectious while on campus, an upcoming update to the SFPS COVID-19 dashboard will include the number of all cases in the district, SFPS spokesman Cody Dynarski tells SFR. He says that update will happen in the coming weeks.

Chavez suspects the number of positive cases could jump to 600 ahead of the upcoming three-day weekend.

Grace Mayer, president of the Santa Fe chapter of the National Education Association, tells SFR the district’s staffing shortage is a well known, long standing issue. She says there were about 30 teaching vacancies at the beginning of the school year, which represents just a fraction of the number of open positions across the state: over 1,000 teachers are needed.

While the district employs over 800 educators, the impact of those vacancies is magnified by a shortage of qualified substitute teachers, Mayer says.

To fill the vacancies, some educators opted to teach more classes than they were originally contracted for in exchange for additional payment, thereby “selling their prep time,” Mayer explains. But when staff are absent—perhaps due to COVID-19—”there’s no one to really cover those classes. And sometimes you’ll get a sub, sometimes you won’t.”

In light of the pandemic-induced staff shortages, “what ends up happening is students are then left to their own devices,” Mayer says. But given that many of the vacant positions, both in Santa Fe and across the state, work with special needs students and younger children in pre-K and kindergarten classes, Mayer says those populations can’t be left alone, unsupervised.

Mayer says the decision to return to remote learning prioritized students’ education. “If you have multiple teachers out, we can’t provide coverage, supervision and a proper education.”

“I don’t think we had a choice,” she adds. “I don’t think the superintendent had a choice at this point. And I hope the community recognizes that.”

The move to remote learning, in part spurred by insufficient educators, comes just a week ahead of the legislative session where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pledged to raise the salaries of education personnel 7%—an effort to attract new teachers and retain existing ones.

The NEA has called for a 10% increase in educator wages, among other funding requests in the union’s 2022 legislative priorities.

This weekend, from Friday to Sunday, the union is hosting a community art build at Milagro Middle School to make banners and signs ahead of the 30-day session that starts next Tuesday to bolster NEA’s demands for more educator support.

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