January 21, 2021

Lawmakers want to give local school boards the authority to open in-person learning

As state education officials continue to look for ways to safely reopen schools to students, Republican legislators want that power to be put in the hands of local school boards.

“The goal is to try to get as many kids back into in-house schooling as soon as possible — safely,” said Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, who said he plans to file legislation giving school boards, rather than the state, the authority to do that. 

He said the bill will include an emergency clause making it law as soon as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it, which could be as soon as mid-March — if she supports it.

“This is something that all New Mexicans — Republicans and Democrats — can get behind,” he said. 

Meanwhile, House Republicans held a news conference Tuesday to say they intend to introduce similar legislation to “get our kids back in the classroom where they can flourish,” Rep. James Townsend, , R-Artesia, said.

Republican lawmakers say children are suffering academically, emotionally, mentally and physically from being isolated from their peers and teachers.

That seems to be the crux of the argument when it comes to sending children back to school full time, yet some question whether the safety factors are worth the risk.

The proposed legislation comes as a new survey of 500 New Mexicans shows that 52 percent believe local school districts should decide when to resume in-person learning, while 30 percent believe that decision should be up to state officials. Another 6 percent said “both” entities should make that call. 

The poll, commissioned by the nonprofit Albuquerque-based Adelante Now Foundation, asked respondents a number of questions about how they feel about the pandemic and about plans to send students back to school. The nonprofit’s website says its mission is to improve public education in New Mexico. 

All told, 66 percent of those polled said schools should be open or offer a hybrid of in-person and online learning. And 71 percent said they are concerned about their children or grandchildren falling behind in school as they struggle to adapt to online learning methods. 

Still, 48 percent expressed concern that their children or grandchildren would contract the virus at school and bring it back home. 

The poll was conducted by the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., which surveyed 500 New Mexicans at random by phone between Jan. 2 and 9.

The majority of states in the country rely on local guidelines when it comes to operating schools during the pandemic, according to a recent Education Week analysis. 

That report said six states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have ordered schools to remain fully or partially closed. Four states — Texas, Iowa, Florida and Arkansas — ordered their schools to fully open in the face of the pandemic. 

In Texas, nearly 2.9 million public school students are attending class in person, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Department website. Of those, 74,277 had tested positive for the virus, based on data released earlier this month. 

And of the state’s 800,000 plus staff members, 44,662 have tested positive.

Sen. Gay Kernan,  R-Hobbs, said many students in her part of New Mexico have crossed the state line to attend schools in Texas because of their struggles with online learning. 

“It will be years before those children catch up,” Kernan said, citing an October 2020 Legislative Finance Committee report that said New Mexico students potentially lost more than a year’s worth of learning when schools were forced to close last spring.

Some districts came up with hybrid approaches to learning last semester and are still allowed to do that, assuming their COVID-19 numbers do not grow beyond state safety thresholds.

But districts that did not do that last year have no choice but to remain virtual, causing problems for students with limited or no broadband capacity and those who need face-to-face interaction with a teacher to succeed, Republican lawmakers say. 

On the issue of safety, Gallegos said local school boards could follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to ensure students and staff members are protected. 

State officials say that is already being done. “It has always been and remains a key priority of the state to help these districts get back into a hybrid and safe in-person learning environment as quickly as it can be done,” Nora Meyers Sackett, spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said in an email Wednesday. 

“We are very optimistic that we’ll be able to expand in-person eligibility and encourage more districts to move forward safely in the very near future.”

On Friday, the state Public Education Department updated its guidelines for districts and charter schools for operating schools during the pandemic.

That 24-page document covers measures such as conducting COVID-19 testing for those who are asymptomatic, implementing proper air filtration methods, serving breakfast and lunch in the classroom rather than the cafeteria and staggering student arrival and dismissal time to cut down on the spread of the virus.

It also suggest cohorting students, a practice where they remain together and confined as much as possible to reduce interaction and make contact tracing easier.

Stan Rounds  and Dennis Roch — the executive director and president, respectively, of New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders — said they support the proposed legislation.

“We are urging a calculated reopening moving forward,” Rounds said.

Roch, a former Republican state representative who serves as superintendent of Logan schools, said such an action would “reflect the needs and wishes and desires” of local school boards.

He said he’s aware that not every district would choose the same plan.  

“There may be school boards where their community is facing a spike [in cases] or that don’t have the interest to be able to return fully,” he said. “But the local school board is the best one to make that decision.”

Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said Wednesday he is a “big proponent” of allowing local school boards to maintain control in many cases. 

But not in this one, he said.

“There are times where as a society we don’t get those options because of societal good,” he said. “This is one of those times. We’re trying to keep people safe and make sure people don’t die and that’s really important at this time.”