New Mexico's educators and families have hit more than their share of speed bumps—and in some cases, brick walls—along the road of education since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the state last spring.
Spotty internet connections have made teaching and learning tough in the face of shuttered schoolhouses, athletics have been erased, and kids have been forced to spend more time with their screens than with their friends.
There have been triumphs, too.
Officials improved internet connectivity on campuses and tribal lands. Families bought new Wi-Fi routers to accommodate schooling from home. Teachers figured out how to raise their own kids as well as others' and found new ways to connect with their students, even through a screen. Some teachers and students were able to return to school, albeit socially distanced.
And, perhaps most importantly, hundreds of seniors across Santa Fe are in the homestretch of high school. Graduation rates for Santa Fe Public Schools also improved for the 2019-2020 school year, despite the pandemic—86.3% for the district, tracking above the statewide average of 77%.
Since the 2016-2017 school year, the district's graduation rate has increased 17%.
But no amount of clever adaptations, hybrid learning models or high-speed internet can soften the blows of a year of letdowns and cancellations for these almost-adults: no prom; no fall evening football games spent squished between friends, eating a hotdog while a wet monsoon wind keeps you cool; no sleepovers; no passing notes in class or chance connections with a new teacher or a new friend that makes high school less agonizing.
Imagine the stress of a senior year with few, if any, of the reliefs that make it bearable.
While interviewing seniors, teachers and school leaders, SFR quickly found several patterns of thought and feeling about a pandemic graduating class: It's lonely, it's hard to stay motivated, education is simply better in person, and the Wi-Fi connection seems reliable until you're trying to submit an assignment at 11:58 pm when it's due by midnight.
Again, though, the triumphs: Santa Fe schools' leaders have come up with their own plans to re-open after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave the go-ahead in February. Starting Feb. 22, some students began walking the halls of the district's public schools in the hybrid-learning approach. Local schools are set to return to traditional learning on April 6, although officials are still collecting numbers of students who want to return versus available teachers and space for social distancing.
There won't be a prom-—though graduation ceremonies will be held on football fields across the city in late May, so 2021 won't yield a class lost completely to cyberspace.
Santa Fe's students have applied to Ivy League schools—and gotten in. Others have steered their youthful ships toward the military or culinary programs. Some are working jobs to save up before taking off for the West Coast, no real goal in mind, except to experience themselves outside of the walls of their childhood home.
Among the threads connecting the students who spoke with SFR are feelings of anxiety, depression and occasionally a suffocating sense of isolation brought on or exacerbated by the unreality of the past 12 months. Another commonality: They all want adventure as the world emerges from the pandemic.
It makes sense. Students' final tours in their high school career have been marked by classes, movie nights, birthday parties, college acceptance celebrations and more—all lived through a screen that inevitably goes dark.
None of it has been easy, but the students, the faculty, the administrators, the staff and the parents have, in most cases, made it work.
Laura Carthy, a senior AP English and literature teacher at Capital High School, tells SFR she would love to return to in-person learning, but she has a medically fragile son, so she won't return to school physically until she has been vaccinated. After a school board meeting in early spring, the teachers union and district have agreed to allow staff to volunteer to return. Including full- and part-time district employees, 344 staff members have returned to work as of March 17.
Carthy says while it has been difficult to keep some students engaged, the ones who really want to succeed have, despite the difficulties. National news organizations have published stories depicting increased anxiety and depression among students that paint a far darker picture than the reality Carthy says she's seen.
"I think it's really insulting to teachers that the national media is just making it seem like everything sucks and everybody wants to die," she tells SFR. "I think that's overstated. It is what it is.… [It's] not easy, but it is possible."
The New Mexico Public Education Department and its partners have also managed quite a feat despite considerable challenges: Over 12,000 students were marked as "unaccounted for" earlier this year—most have now been found.
As of March 17, 2,522 students are unaccounted for statewide, according to the department. Only three of the nearly 3,000 unaccounted-for students are in the Santa Fe Public School District. However, 3,665 SFPS students were chronically absent this school year, which means they were absent 10% or more of the time.
Following are the stories of five graduating seniors SFR interviewed. Consider them a peek into how Santa Fe's students have struggled, adapted and excelled in this most unusual academic year.
Santa Fe High School
Faris Wald arrived every morning to Santa Fe High School with a backpack full of books and his clarinet in a neat case with writing in black Sharpie on the side. He tells SFR he liked to carry so many books with him that his parents had to buy him a military-grade backpack in middle school. He still uses it.
Wald rose every morning at 5 to study before his classes. He played the clarinet and the alto saxophone. And the 18-year-old was selected to be the high school's drum major for his senior year. (The drum major directs the entire marching band during performances and competitions.)
This was all before the pandemic, of course, during his junior year.
What followed looked nothing like the script, and it's been disappointing. Wald's position as drum major would have been a "nice way" to close his senior year and final marching season.
"We did have some practices over the summer, but as the coronavirus got worse, we had to cancel it," Wald tells SFR. "And in the end, we had to scrap the entirety of marching season, and I'm not sure what's going to happen….We have the music for next year's marching band season. But the problem is, I'm a senior, I'm gone, that was it."
He's almost gone, anyway. He's deep in college applications now, and he's already heard back from a few—he got a scholarship to attend Texas Tech University, which he's considering. The United States Military Academy at West Point is also a possibility. His dream of joining the military is one reason he doesn't want to go back to Santa Fe High, even under the hybrid learning model in which some students will be allowed on campus.
The uncertainty of COVID-19's long-term impacts scare Wald, and not just for his own wellbeing.
"I don't want to bring coronavirus back to my parents because I don't know what's going to happen if they get it," Wald says. "I heard that coronavirus may have adverse effects which are still being studied, like heart problems….I do not want there to be adverse effects if I do decide to attend the United States Military Academy, because the first six weeks, I have to do…basic training, and I don't want to be having an issue because I had coronavirus."
Wald has been particularly cautious around exposure to the virus. He recently went hiking with friends and it was the first time he had seen them in months. He didn't get a job during the pandemic because his mom, who has been "strict" about the health orders, asked him not to.
He, his parents and two younger siblings have been holed up together since March, with multiple Google Meet classes happening around the house. (Like most of the students SFR spoke with, his family had to upgrade their Wi-Fi speed and connectivity when all three kids started school from home.)
Despite an interrupted senior year, no chance to lead the band during football games, increased anxiety and feelings of isolation, Wald has been able to exercise more frequently than he would have had in-person school continued. It'll pay off if he decides to join the military. And most importantly, it's a point of pride for him, an emotion that has been severely lacking in a world dominated by fear.
"Part of the requirements to get into West Point, and also the United States Naval Academy, which I've yet to hear back from, but both of them require a physical exam called the Candidate Fitness Assessment," Wald tells SFR. "And because of COVID, I was actually given more free time and was able to properly prepare for the exam and do quite well in it, which is something I'm quite proud of."
A Sense of Loss
Capital High School
There was no Wi-Fi at Jamilla Jaramillo's house during March and April 2020, the first two months of the pandemic, when New Mexico's stay-at-home orders were new and unprecedented. She did most of her homework and even attended class on her phone, using up precious and expensive data. Her family had to pay multiple data overage fees.
To avoid that, she often sat in the parking lot of Boxcar and used the sports bar's Wi-Fi. She has worked on and off as a hostess there throughout the pandemic.
It was a rough beginning and it didn't necessarily get easier, even though Jaramillo's mom and grandmother did eventually install Wi-Fi. Jaramillo was able to attend class from a laptop by the end of her junior year.
But all three contracted COVID-19 in November, probably from other family members who live nearby.
"My mom…had it the worst of all of us," Jaramillo says. "Me, I had body aches like one day and then I just lost my taste and smell. I was eating and I was like, wait a minute, I can't taste."
Jaramillo's experience—illness, unstable employment as an essential worker at a restaurant and internet issues at her rural home—paints her as the quintessential New Mexico student.
She wants to see her friends walk across the stage at graduation. She really wanted to go to prom. There's a sense of loss—she will never get to experience the traditions that an uncountable number of American high school seniors have lived for generations.
Despite a difficult year, the future is looking up, though it's not clear exactly where it will lead for Jaramillo. She's applying to culinary school at Central New Mexico College and New Mexico State University. She wonders often if a culinary track is a "dead end" though—so she's also applying to the University of New Mexico for a degree in business.
Even looking forward doesn't quite take away the sting of a senior year of losses. "It sucks that I don't get to experience a senior year like everyone else did," Jaramillo tells SFR. "We can't even see any of our friends. We can't go to class. We don't experience the senior prom, and we don't get to take our class picture, let alone…see each other and see everyone's accomplishments this year."
Headed for Dartmouth
Santa Fe Preparatory School
Emma Tsosie is a self-described introvert. She didn't participate much in sports or clubs at Santa Fe Preparatory School, which she's attended since the seventh grade, so the arrival of the pandemic didn't take that from her. In fact, the impacts of COVID-19 on life in general have fit Tsosie like a puzzle piece in some ways—they have slowed everything down to a pace that feels more manageable to her.
"I like when things are slower," Tsosie says. "It's hard because obviously I haven't really seen my friends and I miss them, but it's nice that…the world has just slowed down, so you can take your time more with things. And overall, I have really loved my classes, even though they've been online. I just have a really great time with opportunities in classes that I have had, even though it's through Zoom."
While a life partially on hold doesn't feel that bad to Tsosie, the isolation has gotten to her in some ways. She has struggled to feel motivated, which she says stems from anxiety and depression. Switching from her mom's house in Santa Fe to her dad's house in Nambé, plus school, hasn't left a lot of space to socialize.
Santa Fe Prep moved to a hybrid model in February, which has improved Tsosie's sense of isolation—two grades are on campus at a time while the rest are online.
"I noticed when I go on campus for a few days, like two weeks ago now, I felt a lot better than I expected I would after having just small interactions with somebody before class," Tsosie tells SFR.
She's not ready to go back to school full-time yet, though, even if allowed under current public health orders. Despite the disappointment of this school year, the fear of getting COVID has kept her appreciating Prep's online framework. She understands the importance of not spreading the virus—she's a registered member of Picuris Pueblo and has Navajo relatives and ancestry.
The Navajo Nation has been particularly hard-hit by the spread of COVID-19. Early on in the pandemic, it had the highest per-capita infection rate in the US.
Like the other students SFR interviewed for this story, the public health orders and the complete destruction of all senior year expectations hasn't held Tsosie back. She was accepted into her "dream school," Dartmouth College, to study psychology in the fall.
Capital High School
When UNM's basketball team relocated to Texas in order to continue the season out from under New Mexico's strict health orders, 18-year-old Jeremiah Aguirre knew then the chances of playing his senior year of basketball for Capital High School were nearly nonexistent.
"If a professional team or a high-level team like that isn't able to practice within the state, there's no way that high school sports are even going to have a chance," Aguirre says. "They have a lot more resources than we do. They have daily tests. They have all that. And we don't have none of that."
Aguirre plays point guard. He's been a Jaguars basketball player since his freshman year at Capital. It was a major part of his high school experience before the pandemic snatched it away last spring and has yet to fully give it back. (The team was able to practice some before the second lockdown in November.)
While the loss of his sport hasn't impacted his college plans, Aguirre says not playing basketball has made focusing in school infinitely more difficult.
"A lot of the time I would use basketball as my motivation to get good grades," Aguirre tells SFR. "Once it was taken from us and it was all up in the air…it put me down and it made it hard to stay on track."
While Aguirre did struggle to stay motivated in the first semester of his senior year, he's "figured things out" by now—just in time to graduate and decide on a college or continue to run his online business—or maybe both. He's spent a lot of time during the pandemic growing his buy-sell-trade shoes business, KrypticKickz, via Instagram.
In this quiet period of transition, he's still waiting to hear back from several colleges he's applied to and spending time with family—one of the few pluses of the pandemic for Aguirre. He likes that his parents and siblings aren't tired after a long day away from home, leaving more time for meaningful interaction.
"There are very few people I have talked to during this time," Aguirre tells SFR. "I was never really a social type of person…like I was able to chill by myself and stuff like that. But now during this, I wasn't able to do it even if I wanted to. I feel that I need to go and socialize with more people. Now more than anything, I feel disconnected from a lot of the world, seeing them through a phone screen or a TV screen."
New Mexico School for the Arts
Nothing was going to keep Elsa Sanchez from attending the New Mexico School for the Arts. She auditioned twice before she was accepted as a vocalist into the school's music department for her sophomore year of high school.
She's taken that same attitude into the pandemic, using the free time she would normally spend with friends to seek admission to no fewer than 25 colleges and universities. She says she's been accepted to "about 50%" of them and she's waiting to hear back from the rest before making a final decision on where she's headed in the fall. Her top choice so far is the University of Michigan.
"I really like that school and…I've just been attracted to it," Sanchez says. "I guess that's kind of really cool that the pandemic has allowed me to, like, apply to a million colleges."
Sanchez doesn't know exactly what she wants to study yet. She's torn between musical theater and political science. The latter, she knows, would support her tentative plan of studying law one day.
Until high school graduation, however, and potentially law school, Sanchez has had to figure out how to excel as a singer—completely online.
"We've been recording ourselves and just singing in our own houses, and then they've been adding in music and things like that or even adding our voices together," Sanchez tells SFR. "It's been kind of fun trying to get the angles and trying to record and get to sing your own songs…but it's also kind of a challenge, because you have to have the equipment and the devices to be able to record yourself on and also make music."
It's nowhere near the same as practicing in person. Sanchez wants to go back to class in person, even if it's only for a few weeks. She says it would be "sad" to have an entire year completely online, not to mention inconvenient. Both of her parents are essential workers—her mom is a saleswoman at Dillard's and her dad is a night manager at FedEx—so she occasionally had to park out front of a McDonald's to attend class and do her homework by herself. (Sanchez's and her younger brother's online classes both going at the same time have occasionally been too much for their home internet connection.)
Among the positives of the stay-at-home orders for Sanchez: time with family and a new perspective on life. And she hasn't had to wait even a minute to open the acceptance letters from colleges.
"I really enjoy spending more time with my family, even though they're both frontline workers. I really like staying at home," Sanchez says. "I feel like it was a time for self-reflection and getting a hold of yourself. The pandemic didn't really stop anything.…And especially during your senior year, you keep applying to everything and stuff, so it's exciting to be here when you get the college letters, like, right away."