The Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education is facing a tough problem it’s never seen — like many things in a COVID-19 world.

School districts across the nation are pondering how to continue to provide a quality education, given the pandemic: Traditional classroom learning, virtual learning, a blend of both of those or maybe something else.

The bulk of Monday evening’s four-plus-hour board meeting was spent listening to representatives of two of five task forces, with the three remaining task forces lined up for this Monday at 5:30 and next Monday, also at 5:30. Those will feature presentations from the Student & Support Staff Task Force, Health & Safety Task Force and Communications & Community Concerns Task Force.

Such presentations are the beginning of the conversation on this topic. Final plans cannot be formulated until school districts receive guidance/directives from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Last week, Superintendent Sue Cleveland led it off, emphasizing a few of the main points:

• Social distancing must be maintained;

• “Maybe” 15 students in a classroom;

• Remaining 6 feet apart on a school bus, which means a bus would have no more than a dozen riders;

• Many school bus drivers in the district are 60 and older, thus at a higher risk of contracting the virus, the district must isolate the driver and add an attendant on buses;

• Food service continues to be a challenge, and while the district had been moving away from disposables, she said, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends them;

• Barriers are needed in the school restrooms between sinks;

• Buildings will not be open to the public, such as for church services, meetings, forums, etc.; and

• Technology access.

The No. 1 concern, Cleveland said, is ensuring all students have internet access.

“We are making adjustments as we go through it,” she said, leading to the Reopening Task Force Information Technology presentation, led by IT Executive Director Paul Romero, accompanied by Terri Meier, the director of IT.

Romero said a 10-month contract with Sparklight for connectivity for 600 homes would cost the district $207,000. An additional 12-month contract for outlying areas, Bernalillo and a few pueblos that send students to RRPS buildings would be another $40,000.

Romero and Meier discussed lease vs. purchase for Chromebooks still needed. That worked out to be $4.6 million to get RRPS through the 2023-24 school year in leasing the portable computers, or $5.1 million to purchase Chromebooks and get to the end of the 2024-25 school year.

“There are more pros than cons to lease,” Meier said.

Romero informed the board, “We don’t need to purchase or lease for this year,” although the district needed 1,022 more to ensure all 18,000 or so students have one.

Cleveland said the federal government might make some funding available.

Curriculum and instruction

LaJuana Coleman

Next up was the Reopening Task Force Curriculum & Instruction presentation. LaJuana Coleman, executive director of secondary curriculum & instruction, told the board her committee had “looked at lots of research.”

She talked about an expansion of blended and distance-learning models, expecting no more than 15 students in a classroom, and keeping in mind “three ideas to hold true to: simplicity, individual needs and being equity-driven.”

There’s reluctance to go to all-virtual learning because, she said, “(Teachers) have to see kids,” especially in the lower grades, where a friendly face and personalized learning is readily available.

“Some may be in school more than others,” Coleman added.

The online Edgenuity and/or Google Classrooms models would work well for the virtual learning, she said. One drawback for online learning is that a recent survey found, “Students, teachers and parents have varying degrees of technical literacy and access to the devices, Internet and software required.”

“Ideally, we want to be back in school,” she said. “Teachers … are ready to get involved.”

District-wide, according to that survey, 35 percent favor returning to traditional learning and 34 percent preferred blended learning.

Cleveland told the board she heard Los Alamos Schools had discussed having half of its students attending school Monday and Tuesday, with three days of online learning at home, and the other half attending school Thursday and Friday, also with three days at home. The district would sanitize classrooms and other areas on Wednesdays and Saturdays, she said.

But, Cleveland added, “We don’t know what the state is going to come up with … there are a lot of other ideas.” One of those ideas, she said, included the addition of 14 school days at the end of the year, taking the 2020-21 school year into June.

Lastly, Coleman told the board, “Teachers and students don’t care for pass/fail” and want to return to grades A-F.

Restarting athletics

Larry Chavez

Reopening RRPS Sports for “phase 1” was the topic for the district’s executive athletics director, Larry Chavez, who went over the numerous “musts” for summer practices before recommending a start-up date for voluntary practices of June 29.

Chavez said the district’s older coaches, including himself, preferred a later date, but the younger coaches wanted to “start yesterday.”

After a discussion of the pros and cons, the board-approved date of July 6.

“I have two student-athletes, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” said board president Amanda Galbraith. “My children long to be around other athletes.”

She initially preferred June 29.

“It is a hard decision to make,” Cleveland said, “but there’s risks with everything we do … I don’t think (July 6) is a bad compromise at all.”

The board voted 4-1 for July 6; Catherine Cullen cast the lone “no,” saying, “We should move to phase 2 soon.”

Montessori program

Next came the Montessori discussion. It turned out the district would need four to six more qualified teachers.

Three qualified Montessori teachers are leaving the program, and “two want to return to a traditional program,” explained Carl Leppelman, chief academic officer.

Montessori emphasizes individual learning and multi-age practices, and Montessori teachers have concerns about implementing teaching practices in a blended or digital capacity. It’s not designed for digital learning.

The program will also need an additional primary teacher to meet class-size mandates — but that’s not going to be easy.

Leppelman said he felt RRPS had two options: Implement a K-3 program and absorb Pre-K teachers and fourth- and fifth-grade teachers to fill vacant teaching positions, or discontinue the program for 2020-21 and work to develop capacity to retain a commitment to Montessori teaching and learning. This would include funding to train new teachers and possible need for supplies and materials.

With a cost estimated at $209,000 to add the needed teachers and get them trained — Janna Chenault, Elementary School Improvement Officer said the training took a year — Leppelman recommended the second choice — dropping the program for a year.

“It’s a hot topic,” Galbraith said. “I told Dr. Cleveland I dreamed about it last night, I had so many emails. … The biggest concern is having trained (teachers).”

At a cost to parents of $700 for a full year or $500 for a half-year, Leppelman said another 15 students would be needed to keep the program in the black.

Before a 5-0 vote to retain Montessori for the coming school year, Cleveland said, “Parents are going to have to understand it may not look the way it has.”

She told the board it could become a “sub-standard program,” but that, “Whatever you choose, we’ll do the very best we can.”