New Mexico district, teachers ink deal over school reopening

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The largest school district in New Mexico reached an understanding Thursday with a teachers union regarding the restart of classes as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.

The Albuquerque Public School District said the understanding acknowledges the importance of in-person learning for students, but there remain significant health and safety concerns about reopening schools.

The agreement comes as Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to brief the public on the spread of the virus across New Mexico and plans for what her administration calls “a safe and methodical re-entry" to public schools this fall.

School districts last week submitted their plans for the start of the school year to the state Public Education Department, with many requesting to start the semester with remote classes rather than returning to the classroom immediately. The state agency had initially proposed a hybrid plan with students splitting their time between the classroom and at-home learning.

In addition to the remote learning and hybrid plans already under consideration, the governor had asked officials also to look at whether another option could be moving to online only for high schools and using the space to spread out elementary and middle school students for in-person learning.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been helping state education and health officials crunch the numbers for various scenarios to determine which would offer the safest return and the least risk for exacerbating the virus' spread.

Lujan Grisham on Thursday said another 343 cases have been reported, marking the state’s all-time daily high since the pandemic started. The statewide case total now stands at 18,163. Another five deaths also were reported, bringing that tally to nearly 600.

The latest modeling report shows the rate of spread has decreased statewide. But it remains above targets in the Albuquerque area and the northeast corner of the state.

State and school district officials say surveys of parents have shown anywhere from 20% to 30% are opting for online classes only.

A coalition of Latino advocacy groups on Wednesday released the results of their own survey, showing that Latino parents have serious concerns about their children spending too much time away from school or not learning enough from on-line schooling. More than 80% of the 480 parents who were queried in June said they were very concerned about their children falling behind, with math being the subject of greatest concern.

Many of the families said the lack of internet access was a problem in the spring after schools were forced to close and districts shifted to remote learning.

Native American parents and other advocacy groups have voiced similar concerns.

Under the Albuquerque school district agreement, teachers and staff will have the option of working from home when guidelines outlined by the state are met.

District officials say training, planning, meetings and teaching will all take place online during the first few weeks of school, though teachers may choose to work in their classrooms and meet in small groups as long as they abide by statewide public health orders. That includes wearing masks.

The school district will provide employees with masks, extra cleaning supplies for their classrooms, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment.

Teachers will be responsible for arranging their classrooms for social distancing, collecting instructional materials, and becoming comfortable with the new safety procedures and routines.

Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder and Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein issued a joint statement, saying they will continue to work together to find the most effective ways to work during this time.

“APS and ATF mutually agree and understand that schools and educators will face challenges and barriers that will need to be addressed. We believe that the negotiated MOU will help all of you to keep safe and keep schools running,” the statement reads.

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