New Mexico schools must find ways to finish the year without physical classrooms after state officials closed them to in-person education for the remainder of the academic year in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The closures led to a shift from delaying schoolwork, with a chance of schools reopening, to establishing a need for finding other ways to teach. School districts around the state are now working to formalize education plans meant to work for every student.
School districts will submit a formalized continuous learning plan to the Public Education Department by April 8. Schools are not required to make up missed time before April 3 for the original closures, but are expected to have plans for the rest of the year. The Public Education Department expects five weeks’ worth of instruction in the plan.
“The biggest thing on this, that we want to get across to everybody, is that school is not canceled,” said Española School District Superintendent Fred Trujillo. “Only the on-site instruction is canceled. And we are still going to be delivering a quality education to our students.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the closure on March 27. Two weeks prior, she had ordered schools to be closed for three weeks until April 6. This order extends the closure for the rest of the year.
“Keeping schools closed is one of the most important tools we have to support the social distancing that can help us reduce and mitigate the spread of the virus,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
In the March 13 announcement, Lujan Grisham mentioned that studies have shown closing schools to be effective at slowing the spread of a virus. Since then, the number of confirmed cases in New Mexico has grown from six to more than 200 as states nationwide look to limit the damage.
Experts think the new coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets and between people in close contact. When children sit close together in classrooms or touch the same objects and then touch their faces, that can spread the virus. COVID-19 is unlike many diseases in that it appears to be less dangerous for children. However, children can be carriers of the disease, even if they don’t show symptoms, and spread it to higher risk people.
On March 23, the governor ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses as part of a statewide stay-at-home order. Essential businesses include health care facilities, grocery stores and newspapers.
“The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) has adopted the term ‘continuous learning,’ recognizing that instructional modalities will vary by community and, importantly, should be student centered,” the Public Education Department wrote. “Purposefully, terms such as ‘virtual learning,’ ‘e-learning,’ or ‘distance learning,’ are avoided in an attempt to support the individualized learning needs of all students.”
The Española School District is currently working on their continuous learning plan while trying to get in contact with every family and student. Now, the district is sending surveys to determine which students have access to computers and the internet. Continuous learning will be completely implemented by April 15.
“We’ll be probably looking at a technology-based or web-based approach,” Trujillo said. “And then also a packet type of approach to address those students and the needs of those individuals who do not have technology or have that accessibility.”
In the meantime, plans for distance learning depend on the teacher. Some teachers have been offering online education programs, but some Española students have had no coursework since the start of spring break on March 9.
Damon McGinn, a math teacher at Española Middle School, has tried to make programs available to everyone, though nothing has been required.
McGinn recommended that parents and students with access to a smart phone download the ParentVUE and StudentVUE applications. There, they can check grades and attendance, and schools can send communication through the application.
McGinn is using Edgenuity, an online program that was mostly used for credit recovery for high-school students but is equipped with a full curriculum. Through Edgenuity, McGinn can monitor students as they log in, progress through lessons and take quizzes. He also uses an application called Remind where teachers and students can correspond once they log in to the application.
“I imagine that some of the students that have been on it daily, ever since spring break, will probably be able to assist some other students that haven’t been on it yet,” McGinn said. “It’s a very easy program to use.”
He said he has been following the pattern of the pandemic in China since December. He sees a similar pattern emerging in the United States, and he expected the closures.
Most, but not all, of McGinn’s roughly 120 students have logged in through Edgenuity or Remind. But for some students, he has no way to get in contact. He said he hopes the District plan will sort out remaining details and ensure that every student is aware of the curriculum.
“I don’t know the details of what our District’s continuing education plan is going to be,” McGinn said. “But I have a feeling, since we got started so quick doing something, that it’s going to look a lot like what we’ve been doing.”
Meanwhile, McCurdy Charter School is preparing Google Chromebooks for students to check out and will offer printed materials to students without internet access, according to a letter posted on the school website from Director Sarah Tario outlining the school’s plans. Grades for the final quarter will be pass/fail. Española is considering making a similar option.
“The school year is not over,” Tario wrote. “It will just end very, very differently than we could have predicted back in August when we began.”
Several other issues involved with the closing of schools, including graduation requirements and the scheduling of prom and graduation ceremonies, are still to be determined, according to the state’s release. These issues will most likely vary by school district and will depend on the public health status later in the spring.
“We’re just simply going to put together the best plan that is going to meet the needs of all of our students and all of the different schools throughout the district,” Trujillo said. “Our vision and our goal is to have all of our students college and career ready. And, you know what, we’re going to do that. And it doesn’t matter what forum, or what platform, we’re going to do that.”