Public school closures will continue through the end of the academic year, the state Public Education Department said during a press conference Friday morning. The closures are in response to the coronavirus pandemic. PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said the decision to extend the closures was a difficult one to make.
“Ever since we had to announce the temporary closure a few weeks ago, we were hoping that we’d see clear signs that we’d get the all safe to return, and that we’d be able to resume operations on April 6,” Stewart said. “We still have many cases going across New Mexico, including some evidence of community spread. we know that we still haven’t reached the peak of this, and we’re still a ways away from the peak, and it’s quite clear that it’s not yet safe to bring our students back into school.”
Stewart said extending the school closure is in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s strategy “to ensure we’re taking very aggressive and proactive measures at every turn to combat the spread of this virus in New Mexico and save the lives of New Mexicans.”
PED developing at-home curriculum
PED will begin working with school districts and educators across the state to develop at-home education curriculum to keep students on track during the pandemic. School districts will begin implementing these programs “on or near April 6,” Stewart said.
“The PED is going to be waiving the instructional hours requirement, but all schools and charters will be required to submit a continuous learning plan,” Stewart said. “We’re sending out detailed guidance on these plans today, and going through them with all of our leaders.”
He said the department will work with educators to make sure the state “thinks through all the issues around making sure we have equitable access to the learning program for students who don’t have access to technology, for students who have special needs, and for students who require additional support to really be able to thrive in the program.”
Stewart said the continuing education plans can be technology-based or non-technology based and added that many schools across the state whose students do not have access to technology have already been developing and implementing learning strategies that do not require access to a computer or the internet, such as providing learning activities through the grab-and-go plan, or the bus stops and delivering the learning activities, or doing telephonic read-alouds so that students can follow along in their books and ask questions. Those types of approaches could be incorporated into the programs, Stewart said. Schools will adopt a pass/no credit grading system for the duration of the program.
He later added that different school districts will likely take different approaches to meeting the requirements of the program.
“The continuous learning plan asks for schools and districts to determine the methods by which they’re going to reach students,” he said. “The pass/no credit designations that we’ve asked for will vary by locality.”
“This is not a replacement for school. This is not an attempt to replicate the schooling experience,” Stewart added. “This is a time to focus on providing instruction in the critical standards that our students need to meet,” and “keeping our kids academically engaged during this time.”
Employees will continue to receive the current pay structure during the program, and PED will provide school districts with guidance on how staff are expected to continue to work.
“Making sure we are continuing to productively engage our educators and support staff at this time is critical,” Stewart said. “It is not time off for everybody. People are not getting paid to not work.”
Addressing access and technology gaps
Stewart said he anticipates a “significant amount of funding” will become available through Congress for both local districts and the PED to be used to “close some of those technology gaps” in rural and tribal communities and those who do not have access to devices or broadband at home.
Tribal communities are of particular concern because they lack widespread broadband access.
“There’s a huge digital divide when it comes to our tribal reservations. Tribal leaders are concerned about what the access is going to look like for their students that are on the reservation,” said Department of Indian Affairs Sec. Lynn Trujillo. “We’re working with PED and [the Department of Information Technology] to explore some immediate measures, such as temporary hotspots for connecting wirelessly.”
She added that, under normal conditions, tribal libraries and businesses act as internet hubs for the community.
“With the closures, there is a need for more resources getting out into individual homes,” Trujillo said.
The state is also working to ensure homeless youth have access to resources and technology during the program, said the Children, Youth and Families Department Sec. Brian Blalock.
“We’ve been in touch with all of our homeless youth shelters to figure out appropriate protocols to make sure youth have a safe place to be when they’re homeless and looking for shelter. We’re also working to make sure they have the supplies they need,” Blalock said. “My understanding, from the shelters, is that right now they’re making sure they have appropriate cleaning supplies and food.”
Special steps for high school seniors
PED has asked schools to develop “demonstrations of competency” to be used in determining seniors’ graduation eligibility.
“That means our schools and districts will collaborate, via their boards and policies and educators, to determine how our high school seniors can best demonstrate competency and continue to earn credit in their course work,” Stewart said.
That criteria will be developed locally at the school or district level, and may include things like assessments and assignments, applied work experience, and cut scores on college entrance exams.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to prepare them to be in a position to graduate and move on to the postsecondary and career options that are still going to be there for them as we get to the other side of this challenging time,” he said.
“No high school senior will be denied the ability to graduate due to lack of access,” he added. Schools will be required to develop support plans for senior students who are most in danger of not being able to reach their graduation eligibility requirements.
Seniors will also have extended deadlines for competency demonstrations through mid-June. Stewart added that the SAT and ACT organizations are considering offering additional testing opportunities through the summer.
Finally, Stewart said the department is encouraging schools to consider making special arrangements for graduation ceremonies and proms so that seniors don’t miss out on those “milestones” amid the pandemic. Stewart said schools could postpone those events until December, when they are likely to be at home, or hold them virtually.
“This is not a moment that any of us asked for. This is not something we would wish on anybody. We’re here right now, in this moment. We’re going to continue to stand by our kids, even when we’re at a social distance, because they need us more than ever,” Stewart said. “We’re going to continue to engage [students] in a high quality learning experience, and we are exploring every option that we can to make sure we’re getting resources to them, and that we’re supporting our families and educators. Even though we have to be separated, we’re not allowing students to lose the full amount of this instructional time.”