If Superintendent Veronica García and her administrative team at Santa Fe Public Schools learned anything from the hybrid-learning experience in the fall, it was that one model did not fit all. Fall was when elementary school students and teachers returned to the classroom for a brief period.
The district saw the struggles in trying to meet the state Public Education Department’s guideline of dividing student rosters in half and bringing each group to school for two days a week. The limited number of teachers and staff members volunteering to return to the classroom also made it difficult — even as the district focused on students who struggled with internet access for remote learning and those with special needs.
But the three-week trial run with hybrid learning, interrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico in November, set the stage for a reimagining of what in-person learning could look like when the state allowed schoolhouse doors to open yet again.
When García heard Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announce Jan. 26 that students at all grade levels could return to the classroom by February, she said she was confident the district was ready for its second act.
“At the end of the day, it is about the education of the student and how we can best serve them and our families, » García said. « If we have to think outside the box to make it work, we’ll do whatever we have to. Even if we have to turn ourselves into pretzels, we’ll do it.”
As the district prepares to welcome 1,776 of its 12,500 students back to campuses Monday, students, teachers and parents will discover an uneven world of education where learning models will not look the same at every school. It’s an attempt to balance public demand for returning students to the classroom with a limited number of teachers and staff members electing to do the same.
In all, 290 out of 1,087 teachers and support staff members will report to campuses.
Get ready for terms like “flex,” “station rotation” and “flipped classroom” models. They are alternatives to October’s hybrid model.
In the fall, school officials’ visions of hybrid learning included the two days of in-class instruction and three of online learning. Fast-forward four months and students will find “internet cafes” where they will spend most of their time on laptops at workstations in cafeterias and gymnasiums. There will be nearby « help desks » where they can receive academic or technological assistance that does not interrupt classes.
Outdoor classrooms, periods designed for social and emotional learning, and personalized instruction done both in-person and online also await students.
Criticisms and solutions
These options, however, do not meet the traditional educational setting some parents want for their children, and the options have been met with withering criticism.
During a Feb. 8 school board meeting, Andrea Sayer wrote she had unenrolled two of her children from the district and moved them out of state because they were struggling in remote learning. She said Santa Fe Public Schools let her and her children down, and needed to open in-person instruction.
« If classrooms open, I will bring them back in a heartbeat, » Sayer wrote.
Melissa Montoya, whose son is a junior at Santa Fe High, said he decided to stay at home despite the school opening its internet cafes. She said he could study remotely from home just as well as from school.
Montoya added teachers needed to be prioritized in the vaccination line.
« They do so, so much for our students, more than just teach, » Montoya said. « We should get them first to make them feel comfortable before we send all of our kids back to school. »
District and school administrators say they’re doing their best to provide a quality education amid a pandemic that shut school doors for most of the past year.
“I think what we learned [in the fall] is we can do it,” Katherine Diaz, principal at Atalaya Elementary School, said of the adjustments schools are making. “We can fail forward, tweak it and make it work better. Then, we’ll tweak it again and make it work better. Then, we’ll tweak it again and make it work better. Then, we’ll do it again. It will be a constant evolution, and we’ll end up in a good space.”
Toward that end, the district has been building and rebuilding reentry plans throughout the past year, García said, adjusting them to meet the ever-changing guidelines set by the state Public Education Department, which approved the district’s reentry plan.
Vanessa Romero, an associate superintendent for school and instruction support, said she and a group that included fellow Associate Superintendent Larry Chavez, Chief Information and Strategy Officer Tom Ryan and Neal Weaver, the director of digital learning, collaborated on ways to be more effective with both remote- and hybrid-learning models.
She added they explored models that other school districts in the state and across the country used to help determine what would best fit Santa Fe’s needs.
Romero and Chavez presented the models to the school board Feb. 8, and the most popular was the flex model because it allowed for internet cafes. In that model, students are assigned to a particular workstation where they conduct online learning.
Chavez said that if students have a class with a teacher who is on campus conducting remote learning, they can go to that classroom for in-person instruction.
The advantage to the flex model is that those hubs can house anywhere from 25 to 30 students while still adhering to Public Education Department guidelines.
“It’s definitely going to look different,” Chavez said. “An auxiliary gym that they can use for [physical education] will be used for workstations. Even the classrooms will look different because there won’t be as many desks and they will be spaced out more.”
Finding the right fit
Romero said a model elementary school administrators prefer is the flipped classroom in which coursework and lectures will be delivered remotely, with in-person instruction devoted to special projects and one-on-one instruction for students who are struggling with a subject or a lesson.
When elementary schools tried hybrid learning in the fall, Romero said, some teachers struggled devoting their attention to both in-person and remote students. The flipped classroom takes some of the pressure off.
“It’s been a learning experience for myself,” Romero said. “We meet weekly, and we have these great conversations. People share their ideas and their concerns, and we collaborate as a group. We figure out answers to things we never thought we’d have to deal with in our careers.”
Those brainstorming session sometimes produce more outside-the-box solutions. At Atalaya, Diaz is creating a help desk that she and two education assistants will occupy for students who are dealing with technology issues that otherwise might occupy teachers’ time.
She added the school would like to use the station rotation model, which would break students into different stations within a classroom. Some would collaborate on an activity at one station, another group would be learning remotely and another would receive in-person instruction.
Diaz said her school will benefit from having 26 teachers and support staff members opting to return to the classroom. She said all grades will return to campus, although first, third and sixth graders will operate in the flex model.
“It’s really awesome to have so many people who wanted to come back,” Diaz said.
Marc Ducharme, principal at Nava Elementary School, said students will return in the flex model, but the upper-grade students will make up one cohort, while the lower grades will constitute the other group. He added his teachers and support staff will focus on fewer subjects but delve into them more deeply so students have better understanding.
If the focus is on what students are learning instead of where they are learning, it’s a step in the right direction, García said. She hopes it will be the start of a return to normalcy.
« I think the numbers [of teachers and students returning] will continue to improve, » García said. « I think more kids will want to come back once they see how it works. »