LAPS school board and district during Tuesday’s virtual board meeting.
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Students at Los Alamos Public Schools will begin school on August 13 in a fully remote model. Any change to the hybrid model will include a four-week lead time to the extent possible (no sooner than September 8) and be based upon meeting criteria developed by LAPS staff approved by the board subject to Public Education Department requirements and Health Orders.
As part of the Safe Schools Task Force Report, three options were presented to the board. Option 1 was a Hybrid Schedule beginning August 13 involving two days of in person learning and three days of remote learning that would have allowed staff to establish limited contact for in person instruction. Option 2 was the remote start starting August 13 with Hybrid beginning on August 27. Option 3 would have offsite remote learning for the entire school year.
Board member Julia Baker Julia Baker kicked off the discussion pointing out that there is no great solution and that the board was looking at the different plans.
“A lot of them were reacting to what the Public Education Department is giving us. While I think that the Safe Start Task Force has done an excellent job in rolling with the punches and keeping those things in mind, I think we have a good plan, I’m just wondering if we have enough time to implement that plan,” Baker said. “If we’re looking at Aug. 13, do we have time to get the personal protective equipment that we need? Do we have time for teachers to get access to those resources and training that they’re talking about needing?”
She said a staff response received from the union indicated that 47 percent and a much smaller number of students would prefer to do the fully remote option. She said staff gave these responses more recently and she knew wondered if the numbers of families that picked the hybrid model back were still holding up.
“Is it still 90 percent wanting to do the hybrid option or are they wanting to do the remote. And then how are we going to reconcile those if we have more students wanting to come than we have staff to fill those needs. I’m thinking that we might want to give ourselves some more time on this and I’m not really giving an answer, these are just my concerns. I’m wondering could we start everyone online and then move into a hybrid as we see what’s going to unfold,” Baker said.
Supt. Kurt Steinhaus said if the board wanted to start the school year in the fully remote mode, the district is prepared and could do that.
“With regard to starting in hybrid, that’s the part where we don’t have enough PPE and we’re not sure that it’s going to be safe for the students,” he said.
Baker said the board’s focus has to be on safety.
“We have a great plan in place. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the tools, the resources and time for training in place where our staff and students are feeling safe and then also that our staff is feeling that they are getting the help and support that they need and are able to plan for what their classroom is going to look like,” she said. “I know that’s not because we’ve not been trying to get this together. It’s just that things keep changing and we’re responding to what the state says. I think we’ve got to come up with a clear plan so that people can take that and go with it and be safe.”
Steinhaus responded that a clear plan is needed and that it’s getting down to not very much time to get ready for the beginning of school. He said that one very important point was that if the district were to start the school year fully remote, that would mean that teachers would be able to go into their classrooms.
Board member Steve Boerigter mentioned a Wall Street Journal editorial on the case for reopening schools that points out the differentiation in achievement gaps from students that are very well-supported at home and students that are less well-supported at home.
“And it’s easy to appreciate that many students can be very well supported in a remote learning environment and others not so much. And we are in fact a public education entity so we have to be certain that we’re educating all of the public,” he said.
Boerigter said that while the focus on safety and well-being is excellent there is sometimes a theme that heard in mainstream media that in the Coronavirus world people are either safe or not safe.
“Of course as a trained and executing risk management professional over my years at the Laboratory, I would say, wouldn’t it be nice if life was so simple, but it’s not. There is no safe and not safe. That’s not how the world works at least not the world I live in, so I would urge us all to use some caution when we think we can make the decisions in safe and not safe,” he said.
Boerigter said the district will need criteria that should be outlined in advance for when it is prepared to have students back in the schools.
“It was mentioned earlier that we do not currently have enough PPE and that’s an excellent example of a very specific criteria so I think it’s very important for us to establish those limited number of very specific criteria that we at Los Alamos Public Schools will utilize for when we will ask students to return to the schools, which is a separate issue from allowing teachers and staff in school buildings. I do appreciate the comments on the ability to have teachers and staff in the schools which will help us markedly,” he said.
Quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower, Boerigter said, “Plans are worthless, planning is everything”.
“And so I’m of the mind that to the extent that we can, we should in this meeting agree on a school calendar and that’s going to be what we’re going to try to accomplish, recognizing that the news tomorrow could be such that we have to change our plans and that’s okay, but we have to have a plan and those plans could change,” he said.
Board member Dawn Jalbert asked about Option 2, which she said is essentially the same as the slow onboarding plan that the Albuquerque Teachers’ Federation has put out with some calendar differences.
“Safe and not safe, but I would say that we have to err on the side of safe – that’s a no-brainer for me,” she said.
Jalbert noted that the fact that the district can’t get enough PPE in the current super competitive market for PPE is “a total deal-breaker”.
“It sounds like we need more time to secure that PPE and make sure we have everything in place that we need, from technology to teachers feeling comfortable and safe and having access to their materials, so that can develop lessons that can go on line – all of it,” she said.
She said the second option made a lot of sense to her and that it doesn’t sound like the district is ready to go back to the hybrid plan under the current circumstances.
“It was amazing how quickly this district pivoted and went into online schooling back in early spring when this whole thing went down. I just worry about us being forced to be in a position where we’re doing that pivot multiple times because of changes in circumstances with the disease. In the space of a week I’ve watched the number of cases in Los Alamos County go from six to 12 – that’s pretty extreme, so I would say, whatever we do, I’d like to see something that is sustainable for a little bit longer time and it seems to me that online is the way to start out so that we can go slow at the beginning and adjust as circumstances change, Jalbert said.
Board president Ellen Ben-Naim also commented about the Los Alamos COVID-19 numbers doubling in a week.
“I was on a call yesterday with Kelly Beierschmitt from the Lab operations department and they have a very robust testing and surveillance program. Their numbers had held steady for a long time at 11 until just recently and as of yesterday had gone up to 25. I don’t know what the latest is today but that seems to suggest that our surrounding communities from which we know more than 15 percent of our students come, are also experiencing those increases so we have to look at more than just Los Alamos numbers because the kids and families in the school system don’t all live in Los Alamos but they’re all our kids and they’re all our families so that’s on my mind,” Ben-Naim said.
She noted that there was a resolution on the agenda urging the state to pool resources on obtaining PPE rather than leaving the individual districts scrambling for themselves.
“But at the moment that’s where we are and with no guarantee our advocacy efforts will work. I think all of us personally could probably raise our hands in agreement at the frustration of for weeks no Clorox to be found on line and that’s just one piece of PPE that we need. I’m worried about our testing and surveillance capabilities and although we’re being assured that it’s coming, until we know that have it in place, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take,” Ben-Naim said.
She said even though the board has to look at the situation region by region, although the numbers in Los Alamos County are thankfully low but that the trend is alarming based on what seems to be coming out of the governor’s office.
“I don’t want to be in a place where we are doing the very best we can in the next three weeks to open on Aug. 13 as a hybrid model only to be somewhere in that time period told to rein that in, that we can’t start hybrid statewide. My sense is that’s where we’re going. Even if we weren’t, we in Los Alamos don’t have the PPE or the testing and surveillance protocols and capability that we need,” Ben-Naim said.
She said with regard to teachers’ needs and preparation in order to be able to do excellent work, she was concerned that Option 2 as it was presented, might not be enough time. She mentioned options of two weeks, three weeks or more on a the fully remote model unless conditions warrant otherwise.
“I know that will feel very extreme to many families and I’m very sympathetic, very empathetic about the childcare issues. I’m very concerned about the mental health implications about that much time away from school and from peers. On the other hand being in school might not solve those problems either given conditions of what in school will look like with the social distancing needs. So there are mental health risks either way. There’s economic hardship either way – whether we’re five days remote or three days remote and two days on site,” Ben-Naim said. “All of these are dilemmas that I have great empathy for but we need our students, families and staff healthy and safe to the extent that we have any control over knowing that it’s not absolute, it’s either safe or it’s unsafe no matter what we choose. It’s an agonizing decision.”
Ben-Naim said she wanted to recognize the needs of special education students that may only really be able to benefit from in person education and said whatever motion the board ended up with, she hoped it would be left flexible enough that the district could somehow provide face to face instruction for those students who need it.
Addressing public comment received, Asst. Supt. Jennifer Guy said there have been lots of staff comments about safety, contract tracing and child care.
“Child care is a predominant theme. Child care for staff is a concern in any kind of hybrid mode and challenge for parents in the hybrid and the fully remote model,” Guy said.
She said one of the common things being heard is just the need to make a decision and the need to have common blocks of time to plan around.
“There seems to be a worry and concern in our community that we’re going to make changes every single week and parents are going to be left in a state of limbo and teachers are not going to be able to move forward as planned. Everyone seems to want to know what direction and how to start planning. People would like some notice about switching between the models,” Guy said.
She noted that more than 3,000 parents selected the hybrid model when the district conducted an online survey and 406 had selected fully online school when those options were first put out.
“We have not re-communicated with the parents since the plan was put out with the three options after the governors must recent orders,” Guy said. “As a community we’re very much split and as a staff we’re very much split. We have people who passionately want to go back and people that are worried about safety and people that don’t want to come back. It’s a tough decision and no matter what, it’s a challenging place to be in,” she said.
Guy said one of the striking things for her in the union’s comments was that the statistics that they had gathered from rapid responses at childcare centers around the state that show that in the last 14 days since they’ve reopened, 52 adults have tested positive along with 15 children. In addition, she said there are a lot of staff that are sending in comments with concerns about their own health and safety and medicals and their ability to return to teaching next year.
“That’s something that we’ve just begun to work through. People that were commenting were also staff members that have been indicating that they have a concern about returning to the classroom” she said.
Ben-Naim said she thought everyone was feeling dismay to some extent that the board is changing plans, but that the conditions on the ground have changed so rapidly in the last week and a half that COVID leaves the board with no choice at this point. She said she very much appreciated the comment about needing adequate notice before switching models and wondered what adequate notice would be needed.
Steinhaus said the pivot was less than 24 hours in March and that was not enough time but the staff incredibly did it.
“We would not ask them to do that ever again unless we were forced to do that. Ideally the pivot could be constructed around the quarters of the school year and if you look at the school calendar as it sits right now, October 19 is the start of the second quarter and then Jan 4 is start of third quarter,” he said. “One thing the school board might want to consider is giving people adequate warning in blocks as big as a quarter of a school year. That would help our teachers with planning our lesson plans and it would help students in completing their projects and assignments.”
Guy said a comment had been received that asked what is deemed an acceptable infection level in both the County and surrounding areas where it would be safe to go back to school, that there is zero chance that we will go to zero infections and some risk must be incorporated into any activity we perform in daily life. She said that comment leads to the need for criteria that came up in both staff and parent comments. Steinhaus said the decisions right now are being made at the state level and at the Department of Health and that the district would like to know what criteria they are going to use.
Ben-Naim noted the need to come up with a plan at the meeting because of rising rates of COVID in Los Alamos County and surrounding counties. Board members continued to discuss a possible plan while working towards the wording of a motion. That motion which passed unanimously reads: “Students at Los Alamos Public Schools will begin school on August 13, 2020 in a fully remote model. Any change to the hybrid model will include a 4 week lead time to the extent possible (no sooner than September 8, 2020) and be based upon meeting criteria developed by LAPS staff approved by the School Board, subject to Public Education Department requirements and Health Orders.”
Board member Christine Bernstein abstained from voting and did not participate in the discussion because of possible conflict of interest related to a business venture she is undertaking.