Rio Rancho Public Schools main office.
(File photo/ Rio Rancho Observer)

Shortages within Rio Rancho Public Schools seemed to be the main topic at a special Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education meeting the evening of Feb. 1, especially in regard to reopening the district’s secondary buildings to students.
A final plan and decision is expected Monday in a 5:30 p.m. virtual meeting of the board. Superintendent Sue Cleveland said she anticipated recommending a “very limited” soft start for the district’s secondary schools Feb. 22.
But, board members learned, there are shortages in custodians (by about 40), secondary staff (20 vacancies), special-education teachers (short 17), substitutes, education assistants — and enthusiasm from educators, wary about being in classrooms without having been vaccinated.
The state Department of Health pulled the plug on a recent mass-vaccination event for 1,800 RRPS and county educators. Also, 68 percent of members of the Rio Rancho School Employees Union feel “extremely uncomfortable being in a classroom, even with all the precautions in place,” union President Billie Helean said.
Cleveland said she had a hard time understanding why the local vaccination clinic was canceled while 900 educators in another county were vaccinated the same day.
“I really do believe that we should have our staff vaccinated,” Cleveland said. “I think that is the No. 1 priority, and I think the state made a very conscious decision the day it shut that (mass-vaccination event) down and refused to let us have those 1,800 people (vaccinated).”
The next day, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.”
The governor’s OK for schools to reopen to in-person learning puts the district in a challenging situation, Cleveland said, because, even though educators are uncomfortable, the community has been given every reason to expect RRPS to move toward in-person learning.
Cleveland said, “I think everybody is in absolute agreement that we need to get back … it just hasn’t happened, and how fast can it happen?”
And, she predicted, “I wish they understood that we are probably going to see a lot more cases develop out of high school than we ever saw out of elementary. It’s a nature of high school students, you know, to be more socially interactive, and you have much less ability to control their social interactions with each other than you do at the elementary level.”

Other re-opening concerns
Before the secondary buildings reopen, state Public Education Department officials and the fire marshal will visit, ensuring health and safety guidelines have been met.
Also needed are transition time for educators returning to in-person teaching; increasing support services for the social-emotional needs of returning students; and continuing COVID-safe practices. Also, 25 percent surveillance testing will continue, with state sanctions for failure to meet that goal.
Cleveland said four “rapid responses” to a school to handle COVID-19 cases result in that school’s closure for two weeks.
Helean, a first-grade teacher at Ernest Stapleton Elementary, told about her experience after a child in her classroom tested positive for COVID-19. She and the other students were quarantined, and she worried constantly if she had the illness.
She had a negative test for the virus. But, she said, the possibility of getting sick “hangs over my head all day, every day.”
In response to board member Noreen Scott’s question about the union pushing the state to get teachers vaccinated, Helean replied, “We actually have been advocating very directly” to the governor’s office.
Chief Operations Officer Mike Baker said the district will contract out for deep-cleaning of buildings on Sundays and Wednesdays, and the RRPS custodial staff will continue disinfecting facilities.
After hearing the handful of presentations, board President Amanda Galbraith said, “I’m feeling sad. I just can’t see how we’re going to move ahead.”
Cleveland said, “We are going to get through this and we are going to survive and we are going to be in a better position next year.”

Parents want students in schools
According to a survey sent Jan. 28 to the parents of RRPS middle and high school students, and with 5,362 responses, the choice of hybrid vs. only virtual is close to what it was when parents had to make that choice before the school year began.
Then, 59 percent chose hybrid; 40 percent selected virtual only.
In the newest survey, 57.6 percent (3,087) favored hybrid; 39.7 percent (2,127) selected virtual only.
Of those responding to return to hybrid, 57.1 percent (3,062) said their children would not ride a bus; 38.6 percent (2,068) said their children would ride a bus. Twenty-five parents did not state a preference.
Parents were also asked their preference for next school year. Results indicated 59.9 percent (3,214) wanted students to return to the classrooms full-time; 20.7 percent (1,110) favored hybrid instruction; 12.3 percent (662) wanted only virtual instruction; and 550 did not state a preference.

About the author

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer