USA: Teacher safety concerns clash with desire to reopen New Mexico schools

USA/ 02 February 2021/ Source/

By James Barron

Ina Mirabal is looking forward to the day when she can again see her students in person. The Capital High School physical education teacher has just one request. Students should bring the picture they used when they signed into her virtual classroom for months of remote learning.

That way, Mirabal said, she can attach names to faces. Because Santa Fe Public Schools does not require students to turn on their cameras, Mirabal is more familiar with computer-generated avatars or the kids’ old photos.

“As far as seeing their faces, I don’t know who they are,” Mirabal said.

The day when students and teachers return to campus is approaching sooner than many expected. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s surprise announcement last week that public school districts and charter schools can reopen classrooms at all grade levels starting Feb. 8 amid the coronavirus pandemic caught many teachers off guard.

But it also brought back the internal battle for many since schools closed in March. Do they reunite with their students and practice their craft the way they used to, or do they continue with remote instruction and wait for a vaccine — and better days?

As that tug of war roils, some Santa Fe teachers express concerns about continued health risks, and others worry about teaching in a hybrid model in which students will be in the classroom for two days and learning remotely the other three days.

How educators reconcile those questions and emotions could determine how big — or successful — Santa Fe Public Schools’ reopening plans will be.

Superintendent Veronica García said schools are set to reopen Feb. 22, and she will present the district’s hybrid-learning model to the school board Thursday.

While many teachers expressed optimism and excitement about returning to school after 10 long months (Santa Fe elementary schools opened briefly in the fall before virus cases began to rise), those feelings are matched by safety concerns. There also is lingering disappointment with the state Department of Health’s recent decision to refocus its COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort on the elderly and high-risk residents over teachers. Some say inoculating teachers would help accelerate school openings.

García said the size of the district’s reentry plan will be determined by the number of teacher and support staff members who volunteer to return to the classroom. Administrators at each school are gauging that interest.

All the while, some teachers say they feel mounting pressure from students, parents, the general public and sometimes even their own colleagues to bring students back into the classroom.

“I see these articles online saying, ‘This school district is back and why aren’t these teachers back?’ ” said Emily Merritt, a first-year kindergarten teacher at Amy Biehl Community School. “It is so frustrating for us as teachers because it’s not like we love online teaching. We have to put in double the amount of work just to survive the week.

“Going back [to the classroom], the only reason we don’t want to is for safety,” she added. “We don’t feel safe and we know our families don’t feel safe either.”

Teachers and other staff  play a key role in reopening plans because of union representation. In the summer, the district and leaders of the National Education Association-Santa Fe union reached an agreement that outlined working conditions and safety requirements for a return to in-person instruction. The school district opened elementary schools in a modified hybrid model in October based on the number of teacher and support staff volunteers at each school.

Grace Mayer, president of NEA-Santa Fe, said teachers are not trying to place roadblocks on the path to reopening. They simply want to ensure the safest learning environment possible for everyone returning to campus.

“We’re so close to having vaccines and being vaccinated over the next couple of months, I believe, that we shouldn’t take the risk,” Mayer said. “But we believe in free will, and if people want to put themselves in that situation without being [vaccinated], the union isn’t going to stop them. However, I do believe the governor should prioritize educators [for vaccination] and we should focus on that.”

For Capital’s Mirabal, who fought off the virus in the fall, the concern is bringing COVID-19 to students and colleagues. She said she will not return to school until she receives vaccination shots.

“I still don’t feel comfortable going back,” Mirabal said. “I might be in front of all of these kids. … And you never know what the kids’ lifestyles are. I know what mine is and I am taking all the precautions I can. I wear a mask wherever I go, and I don’t go out too much.”

But teachers say their concerns go beyond just safety. Merritt at Amy Biehl was among the 165 teachers and support staff districtwide who returned to the classroom in the fall, and she admitted struggling trying to teach hybrid- and remote-learning students at the same time. She said trying to oversee five students in the classroom while also providing time for the three who were online was difficult because she felt she was shortchanging one group over the other. Her experience led her to decide to not go back into the classroom.

“You can’t give them both your attention,” Merritt said. “At those grades, they really need that constant reassurance. They need to constantly ask questions and know what you’re doing. Just dealing with that was so difficult.”

Brian Pranger, a band teacher at Aspen Community School, said he is frustrated by the state Public Education Department rule that students cannot use instruments during class. He said equipment is available to limit the amount of aerosol spray and saliva released in the air instruments. Pranger also pointed out other states are allowing bands to practice in the classroom and compete in events.

“There are devices available for band instruments that are sort of like a mask for your instrument,” Pranger said. “They cover up where the air is coming out, and other states are using those and they are fairly effective. I’d like for us to do the same thing.”

Pranger wants to return to school, and he said the time has come to get students back into the classroom.

Capital physical education teacher Marcos Gallegos also said he will return to the classroom because he sees the emotional and social impact remote learning is having on students.

“As much as I feel the internet is good for keeping in contact with people, we’re still not really in contact with [students],” Gallegos said. “We can do Zoom and all of that with parents, but it’s not the same as getting those personal interactions.”

Tina Morris, principal of Aspen Community School, said the district is considering a study room at schools for students who lack appropriate internet access so they can learn remotely. She said she would be willing to supervise those students if it could help ensure the reopening of schools.

“It could be that we start that way and then as more and more teachers get vaccinated, we open up a little more,” Morris said.

And then teachers like Mirabal could finally put names to faces instead of pictures.


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