BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos School Board voted 3-1 late Tuesday night to modify the LAPS planned date to transition to hybrid learning to Oct. 19. The Board had previously voted to introduce the hybrid model Sept. 21. Earlier in the evening, the Board voted to move forward with K-3 small group instruction at all five elementary schools.
Board members received extensive written public comment which was all posted online and included in the record, and listened to dozens of comments from parents, teachers and students who participated in the Zoom meeting. For most of the discussion, some 350 participated in the call which continued until close to midnight. The Board also had the opportunity earlier to review hundreds of comments made by staff members on a district-wide survey prepared and distributed by parents over the weekend.
Prior to the vote, Board president Ellen Ben-Naim noted that there was no really good option that was going to meet everybody’s needs and that no matter which way the Board chose to go there is going to be a large group of negatively impacted staff, teachers and parents.
“We’re in a very difficult position. We have heard from folks that more time is needed and I think we’re left with trying to make a decision on how much time that would be. Would it be at the quarter mark or thereabouts, the semester mark? If we’re worried about cold and flu season, January is not going to solve that because January and February are usually the height of it,” she said. “I’m leaning towards the quarter mark as an achievable goal and a reasonable pace to get us to the point of hybrid. I think my caveats would be that we’ll need to look very carefully at staffing. It might mean more staff to cover parts of the day so teachers can get their breaks and their planning period so that we don’t burn them out. I realize that would be a challenge to the budget but I don’t think it’s totally out of reach.”
Board member Dawn Jalbert said she believes the district is not ready for a Sept. 21 start.
“I was leaning that way anyway before the meeting and now I’m absolutely there. I think there are too many unknowns involved here and I think that for sure more time equals more consistency in this for everyone – the parents, the teachers, everyone – and an increased comfort level for everyone,” she said. “We have parents that are begging for a fixed decision and so I am leaning towards January at best and we would have to reevaluate it at that point because just as we didn’t find out about a number of the items that came up tonight – the insurance issue, different things from PED until Friday afternoon p who knows what will come up in between now and January. Who knows how the numbers in the state may change.”
Jalbert said the Board keeps hearing a lot of comments about having absolute faith in teachers and principal.
“And I agree, if anyone can pull this off, this district could. But this isn’t about faith. It’s about science and data, and specifically the very soft science of human behavior which we just can’t predict. That’s what pandemics and epidemics and epidemiology are all about – human behavior and biology. So I’m leaning towards January and that we revisit it hard in December at least so that we reevaluate then about going into the second semester and we what we do,” she said.
Board member Steve Boerigter said every possible angle and scenario has been evaluated.
“Hundreds of times tonight we’ve heard arguments from all sides. I don’t fundamentally see new information from what we had before. We’re in a pandemic – we were in a pandemic back in July. We knew we needed criteria. We knew we needed approval from the state. Those things are still true,” he said.
He said he thinks the PED has done an absolutely outstanding job of putting together the COVID-19 response toolkit for elementary schools.
“It provides a lot of detail for how to execute all the elements of how we’d operate our schools in the hybrid model and the requirements that we have to meet. In the end the balancing act for me is the fear of what might happen versus the reality of what is happening and I think there are just far too many families who are experiencing that a remote only 100 percent model isn’t working for them. There are families who signed up for the hybrid model originally believing that their students would be returning to school and I think that’s what we still need to do because education has been executed using teachers in direct contact with students in some form or another since Plato’s time and I don’t think we’ve learned anything fundamentally new beyond that.”
Boerigter said if it was entirely up to him, he would stick to the July 21 original timeline that the board promulgated in July.
Board member Melanie Colgan said she had considered all the public comments received and although she is very much in favor of going to hybrid she feels students need to be back in school.
“I feel that’s what the school board decided just a few weeks ago and we need to stand by that, but I also feel that we’re not ready to go back to school. There are so many unknowns. Just the things that the PED sent out need to be sorted before we can get back to school and that’s just to follow state guidance. At that point it doesn’t have much to do with comfort levels and what we like – we have to follow state guidance before anything else,” she said.
Colgan said she worries about many of the things the teachers mentioned.
“They’re having trouble with their scheduling. They feel we’ll cramp too much information into two days and then the kids will just be left for the next three days. I feel these are topics that we can work around if we have to put forward a more flexible hybrid schedule for example,” she said.
She mentioned that one of the teachers had suggested splitting the cohorts into smaller groups and that they could come in just one morning a week and they could use the afternoons to reinforce whatever was taught in the morning.
“Teachers need time to plan. They need time to eat. Having all the specials on the days when the children are not in school originally sounded like a great idea but now I wonder if it’s putting too much pressure on the classroom teachers. I feel that their schedules need to be sorted out properly before we can just put this model into place. I don’t know if we need all the way till January to do that. I wish we had a little bit more of an input from principals or teachers as to how long it would take to get schedules in place and get curriculum to a place where they feel it would be appropriately delivered,” Colgan said.
She said one of the special education teachers had mentioned how scheduling had been hellacious since the get-go and asked if there is a way to get special education students scheduled on a more regular basis and in a more sane manner. She noted that parents had said their special education students were not getting the attention they needed.
“I feel these are all things we can do as a district but we need time to implement them and really think them through before we set up our students and teachers to fail. I want to go back to hybrid. I feel it would be in the county’s best interest but I want to do so in a successful manner so I would like to extend the time that we have. To what date, I do not know. I wish I knew more about what it would take to put schedules like this into place,” Colgan said. She noted that she wanted to see hybrid happen but just not at this moment in time.
Supt. Kurt Steinhaus said if the board added three or four weeks and added a landmark for grades and how the semester goes, that the first nine weeks ends on Oct. 16.
“If we gave us and we gave our teachers more time, one option would be to start the second nine weeks in hybrid which would be Oct. 19,” he said.
Chair Ben-Naim said she felt that was a good amount of time with a goal to work towards, that it allows time to do the careful planning, for teachers to understand what they need to do and how to do it and have that training.
“I think that amount of time can also give us the opportunity to work out a lot of the kinks in the remote model which a lot of people made a strong plea for. Still after hearing everyone, I don’t think that waiting all the way till January is the right answer or is going to get us to where we’re trying to get,” she said.
Jalbert said she felt the January option could give the board the possibility of maybe skipping hybrid entirely and going back to face to face instruction depending on what the state said and what the data and infection rates looked like.
“I would mostly say that I don’t think that October is enough time to increase the comfort level of our staff and work out all the answers to this. We thought we had enough time last time. I’d rather do this right – take the time now, do this right, find the consistency and the definite answer and then not be revisiting this again in late September to revise it yet again when we find that we aren’t hitting our marks for an October switch to hybrid,” she said.
Ben-Naim said she could see that the January timeframe would give plenty of time and have the advantage of everybody knowing what the expectations are.
“The heartache in that is knowing that it will be consistently bad for so many of our families and students. That’s where I’m having trouble. And frankly teachers too have said that remote doesn’t work,” she said.
Jalbert said on the flip side of that, the risk is having to be consistently bad for so many staff as well as students and families.
“We’ve also heard a lot of families who are saying, ‘Remote is going great for me right now and my kids are enjoying it’ – even from very young kids – and so I think we can provide more support and different kinds of support from those families that are struggling with all remote and help them through to January but I don’t see that a little more than a month away is going to help us that much so I’d rather wait till January,” she said. She added that there would be a two-week break, cold weather, closed windows, and that the board doesn’t know what things are going to look like in January.
Boerigter said he understood he was in the minority and that he was perfectly okay with that.
“I am okay with processing a great deal of information and coming to a different conclusion than my peers. I am supportive of an Oct. 19 return to hybrid if that means that we can make a decision and move forward and make a commitment to teaching our students and having students and teachers see each other again even under the difficulties of the hybrid model,” Boerigter said. “I don’t see the benefit of pushing it out to January because if our concern is our ability to meet the requirements then I think we have confidence we can meet those requirements put out by the state in October. If our concern is what will really be happening with the pandemic, we don’t get to know the answer to that future scenario in any case. I don’t think we should be making our decisions on what we think may or may not happen relative to the pandemic.”
He said if the district feels it can meet the requirements from the state, it should move forward.
Colgan said she agreed with Boerigter.
“If we can get this done between now and Oct. 19, I say we go for it. We can’t think the numbers will go up, the numbers will go down, we’ll be shut, we’ll be open, there’ll be a vaccine, there won’t. We can’t plan on those things. Right now according to the data we are in the green zone. We are in that sweet spot to open right now. If there’s any community that can open, it’s us. The fact that other things are still remaining closed around us I think shows that the community wants the students to go back to school. In some ways the community is so much safer when things are closed. That just allows less interaction for our children,” she said.
Colgan said she feels the community has worked really hard since COVID began, to stay locked down and to wear masks and social distance. She said the reward is getting to send our children back to school.
“Does it make everybody feel 100 percent comfy? No. There’s always going to be a risk. Are we going to everything to reduce that risk as much as possible? Yes. We will take every step we can, but we can’t predict what will happen. On a good note, I see if we have a little more time with the remote model we’re in, we will have time to work the kinks out of that remote model. So if we do go into hybrid and we do have to pop back out later on some time in the school year, we know that remote will be a good, viable option. We won’t have the anxiety going into it that we had when it started.”
She said she would support an Oct. 19 start date if the district could get the teachers everything they needed and give them the support they need. She said that could include reworking the schedule, hiring some more instructional assistants, getting some more resources especially for the teachers of younger children.
Jalbert said the board is building on the backs of teachers who have clearly indicated they are not ready to go back right now. She agreed that the future can’t be known but said an October start date based on the supposition that everything is going to go in a sunny way could mean going back to remote learning.
“How many school districts across the country do we have to see do this before we kind of get past this, ‘Oh well, here in Los Alamos we’re so immune to that’. I think it’s insanity to go back any time before January. Let’s buy the extra time, buy the consistency, and the only coin we have to buy that with is time to buy us some consistency,” Jalbert said.
She asked where is the magical pot of money that was going to help provide extra staffing and more.
“You’re asking staff to shoulder this burden. They’re the ones that have the exposure – not school board members, not parents who are at home who are unhappy and I get that. Sorry, it’s a rotten situation to be in but I think it’s easier to help families that are struggling more than it is to put us in the way of harm and have an entire community struggling when we have to flip-flop back again to online groups,” Jalbert said.
She discussed the effects of indoor family gatherings at Thanksgiving, with numbers going up and the possibility that by Christmas numbers would be dramatically up.
“It is just not fair to ask teachers to assume that risk for a community and a society. It’s not reasonable,” Jalbert said. She noted that she is a teacher and that if she was a teaching right now, she would be turning in her resignation.
Ben-Naim noted that the board was deeply divided and suggested trying to put forward a motion to see if it would pass or adjourning the meeting and reconvening later in the week.
Boerigter said in light of the current information available to the board, he would move that the Los Alamos Public Schools modify its planned date to transition to hybrid learning to Oct. 19 for elementary schools. The motion passed 3-1 with Ben-Naim, Boerigter and Colgan in favor and Jalbert opposed. Board member Christine Bernstein was not involved with the discussion or vote because of a conflict of interest issue. See separate story.
The board will reconvene later in the week to complete business on the agenda.