February 9, 2021

Bill to give school boards authority to reopen stalls

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

A bill that would give local school boards in New Mexico the authority to decide when students could return to the classroom amid a state-issued public health emergency order stalled Monday in the Senate Education Committee after a 4-4 vote.

But the proposed legislation, which garnered the support of one Democrat on the committee, hasn’t been expelled.

“Let’s just leave it there for a while and see if [committee members] go back and read some of the information that’s been sent,” one of the primary sponsors, Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said. “Who knows? Maybe it’ll revive itself.”

The vote on Senate Bill 171, partly born out of the frustration parents have felt since many schools switched to online learning as part of an effort by the state to contain the spread of COVID-19, comes the same day more schools were allowed to reopen under a plan Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced two weeks ago.

“The intent of this legislation is not to undermine the impact of COVID-19, but to underscore the need for our children to resume in-person learning,” Kernan, a retired educator, said in a statement after the vote. “The social and emotional harms done to our students over the past eleven months will only widen the achievement gap and further aggravate the educational challenges facing our state. We must act now to mitigate the damage and I hope the committee will revisit this bill and take a step in that direction.”

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers need to spend more time developing the proposed legislation and seeing it through when “we’re not in the middle of the thicket of it all” and emotions are running high.

“Where the governor is concerned, I don’t constantly always agree with everything that she’s doing or whatever, but on this matter, leadership is lonely,” he said. “I would much rather our governor overreact than significantly underreact. If she overreacts, we’ll never quite know. We’ll just never know if she overreacted on this matter. But we would sure know right away if she underreacted.”

Another Albuquerque Democrat, Sen. Harold Pope Jr., agreed the bill needs more work. He said such a bill could have dire consequences for students.

“I’m just concerned with this bill that if it was implemented, would we be better off today than we were, and will it help going forward,” he said.

The bill drew the support of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association and the New Mexico School Boards Association. People who spoke in favor of the bill decried an increase in youth suicides since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March and also said students are leaving the state to attend schools that allow in-person learning.

Brayden Ford, a 16-year-old junior at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, urged lawmakers to endorse the bill, saying he and “every single one” of his peers have been wanting to go back to school for the last 11 months.

“Why are kids able to go back to school in most other states but not us?” he asked. “It makes no sense that my friend in Texas is in the middle of a school year and has already wrapped up his football season when I haven’t even been able to meet my teachers in person. Many of my peers have given up hope.”

Ford said the governor’s job isn’t to “parent every single kid” in New Mexico.

“It is my right to receive an education, and right now, me and every other student in this state is being denied that right,” he said. “Online school simply does not provide the adequate tools and environment that students need to be successful. I pride myself on being a great student. I’ve been able to maintain straight A’s, as well as playing sports, but online school has certainly made me struggle. … The cure cannot be worse than the problem, and the lockdowns have done more harm than good.”