The New Mexico Public Education Department decreed last Monday that for the coming 2021-22 school year, all individuals in elementary schools — including teachers — must wear masks, while secondary students providing evidence of vaccinations will not need to be masked during the school day.
A day later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided that masks are still recommended for wearing indoors, vaccinated or not.
The Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education is meeting this Monday in a special session to discuss mask-wearing for its secondary students.
Also expected to be finalized tomorrow is how will vaccinated students be identified visually and what penalties will face those who refuse to wear masks or remove them. The district can decide that after a certain amount of mask infractions, students may be denied access to the buildings and return to virtual learning.
Teachers, although they cannot be forced to get vaccinated, must also be masked if unvaccinated.
Superintendent Sue Cleveland told the board at its Monday evening meeting: “You don’t have to tell us (if you’ve been vaccinated),” she said, “the absence of a mask tells us.”
Cleveland said she doesn’t want secondary teachers to be the police in the classrooms and hallways. The state has a Sept. 1 deadline for deciding on removal/refusal consequences.
Here in Rio Rancho, secondary students head back to school Thursday; elementary students return Aug. 9.
Monday, district Chief Communications, Strategy and Engagement Officer Beth Pendergrass said returning students would find the plastic barriers throughout the schools earlier this year gone, as would be the tape down the hallways indicating direction of travel. She expected classrooms could be full.
But those plans changed later in the week. Pendergrass told the Observer Thursday she wasn’t sure if the water fountains would be operational, as had originally been noted.
The PED didn’t provide school districts much lead time to prepare with its distribution of its re-entry toolkit, which wasn’t received until noon July 26.
“It’s a little bit frustrating that we’re opening in a week and we got the toolkit at noon (Monday),” Cleveland said, happy to see the quarantine rules “more lenient” and RRPS in a “far better situation than we had last year.”
Of course, more frustrating was the CDC’s directive in the same week.
The district isn’t sure how many students it’ll ultimately have, with registration numbers in but not enrollment numbers, and knowing some parents are changing their minds in light of the PED’s newest mask mandates.
Albuquerque Public Schools opted to have its secondary schools go all-masks.
There was a consolation for volleyball players: Those who have been vaccinated won’t have to wear masks, as their unvaccinated teammates will need to do. And outdoor sports’ athletes will not need to be masked, either.
The PED has requested districts help out, when they can, in virtual learning opportunities, but Cleveland said RRPS has “got to take care of our own.” The district is offering all-virtual learning to all grades in the 2021-22 school year.
Summer school success
Cleveland told the board that 1,314 credits — “an absolutely incredible task” — were earned by high school students taking summer school courses, quite an increase from the usual 350-400. Those completing requirements for graduation will be considered members of the Class of 2021.
Middle school students didn’t have traditional summer school sessions, she said, although parents asked that nine middle schoolers, mostly sixth-graders, be retained. Also, Cleveland said, 131 elementary students enrolled in summer school will be promoted.
Surveys provided valuable information
Happy Miller, the executive director of research, assessment, data analysis and accountability, provided the results of spring surveys of parents and students.
The “Student Satisfaction and Safety Survey,” distributed April 26-June 7, was for students in grades 5-12, garnering nearly 6,000 responses. An “Opportunity to Learn Survey,” administered May 3-21, got responses from almost 6,000 students and 700 teachers in grades 3-12.
“What we have learned is that the online platform is not for everyone; not everyone does well with it,” Cleveland said.
She was pleased that survey results indicated people felt they had access to assistance when they needed it and weren’t “drifting,” unable to receive help.
“We really did improve a lot in terms of our technology aptitudes and our ability to utilize technology for the delivery of instruction,” she said.
Cleveland concluded that the “internet opens the window to the world,” much like television did for families in the 1950s.
Human Resources Executive Director Mike Chavez provided the district’s vacancies as of July 15 but was optimistic that would improve soon.
Although there were still 25 custodial vacancies, Chavez said there had been “40 just a few weeks ago.” He stressed to the board that these were all “very preliminary numbers.”
The district held a job fair Tuesday, that day after the meeting, when he hoped there’d be more applicants.
The biggest category to fill is educational assistants, with 43 vacancies.
There were 30 teaching vacancies, 18 in special education and 12 in general education.
Also needed were bus drivers (four vacancies), counselors (six vacancies, with Cleveland noting, “We’re rarely down six counselors”), social workers (two vacancies) and health assistants (three vacancies).
After the special meeting Monday, the board’s next regular meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 9. The members will convene in the board room, and the meeting will be live-streamed, as usual.