BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos School Board voted 4-1 Tuesday to have elementary students return to school starting Oct. 19 on a hybrid model. Board members Ellen Ben-Naim, Steve Boerigter Christine Bernstein and Melanie Colgan voted in favor and Dawn Jalbert voted against.
Because of the importance of the board’s discussion, the Los Alamos Reporter is splitting coverage of the meeting into more than one story. Part 1 addresses the staff presentation on the readiness of the district for hybrid and the results of a staff survey. Part 2 will cover board members’ positions and comments during the meeting.
Supt. Kurt Steinhaus first told the board a story from Los Alamos Middle School teacher Julia Shepard, mother of six school-age children about a dream her daughter had about being at school and being able to actually touch and check books out of the library. He said in appreciating and recognizing “the multitude and diversity of our struggles”, this story seemed like a good way to illustrate what many teachers, staff and parents are going through.
“We hear you and appreciate how badly everyone wants some normalcy and stability,” Steinhaus said, adding that in recognizing challenges, the board’s decision about moving to hybrid learning may be as much about mental health and isolation as about COVID-19, even though both are serious safety issues.
Steinhaus noted that the last time transitioning to hybrid was discussed by the board, he had requested additional time to meet last-minute requirements from the state such as standards for nurses and air filtration systems and new cleaning protocols. He said even though staff was ready to go on the teaching and learning side, more time was needed to meet the additional state requirements.
“So, where are we today? Are we ready to implement the hybrid mode? The short and direct answer is yes, as they say at NASA, ‘All systems are go!’, he said.
Steinhaus said the new requirements have been addressed and all five elementary schools have a plan in place with schedules and details about how to keep students safe as well as engaged in learning math, writing, English Language Arts, social studies, specials, unstructured play during recess and more.
“We are prepared to welcome students next week for hybrid learning – half of the students on Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday,” he said. “We have district-wide written plans, PPE is fully stocked, and by Friday, I will have conducted a third safety walk-though at every school,” he said. “It is important to restate that our goal has been and continues to be returning to school five days a week with all of the before- and after-school activities, clubs, music, theater, and athletic events that are so very important to a well-rounded education for our students.”
Steinhaus said the hybrid model meets CDC’s guidelines and Public Education Department requirements, including student cohorts and COVID-19 assurances, and cleaning/sanitizing requirements.
“We have spent hundreds of hours talking one-on-one with teachers and parents to answer questions and make necessary accommodations. One teacher at a time and one parent at a time we have been tirelessly working to find solutions,” he said.
He noted that with the addition of the Los Alamos Online Learning Academy and Topper Virtual Academy, parents and students have been given the choice to stay in virtual learning until the end of the school year.
“We are fortunate to have small class sizes, especially when compared to other school districts in New Mexico and across the country. The small class sizes provide a unique opportunity for learning and even making up for lost ground. Through adversity, we can find ways to thrive,” Steinhaus said.
He noted that nurses at every school have established an “isolation room” in case one is needed. A new app called Eagle Intelligent Health has been introduced to provide daily check-ins that take about 20 seconds about possible symptoms and temperature. With assistance from the Department of Health, the district is working to complete a COVID-19 test for all staff who will be interacting with students and weekly surveillance will be conducted for 5 percent of staff.
“Are we perfect? No. However, I believe we are ready to welcome students to hybrid learning, if that is your decision,” he told the board.
Steinhaus listed some of the resources and research being used by the district, including the PED Toolkit for Elementary Schools, the LAPS Teacher Handbook for Hybrid Learning, the LAPS Parent Guide to Hybrid Learning, the Safe Start Task Force Report, LAPS Criteria for Re-entry and the LAPS Continuous Learning Plan.
He noted that all bus routes are ready and that staff have been planning for the physical arrangement of classroom furniture, materials, and student belongings. He also notified multiple national and state resources being used by the district and that he has checked in with superintendents at Rio Rancho and Bloomfield for lessons learned about safety protocols, transportation, lunch, and communications.
“If this seems like a lot, it is. LAPS staff are nothing short of incredible. This is not me, it is our wonderful employees who are staying focused on what is most important and letting go of lower priority items. We are using the Safe and Civil Schools framework,” Steinhaus said. “LAPS staff are quick studies and fast on their feet. We have stepped up to the challenge.”
Asst. Supt. Jennifer Guy presented the results of a survey conducted with all schools staff asking them to indicate a preference on whether to return to hybrid Oct. 19 or continue remote learning. She said 99 percent of the staff responded and that while there were some differences in staff around the difference, the percentage was a pretty even split at 48.2 percent for remote and 51.7 percent for hybrid. The breakout for the individual schools was as follows:
Aspen 63.3 percent remote, 36.7 percent hybrid
Barranca 65 percent remote, 34.4 percent hybrid
Chamisa 36.8 percent remote, 63.2 percent hybrid
Mountain 46.4 percent remote, 53.6 percent hybrid
Pinon 41.7 percent remote, 58.3 percent hybrid
Guy noted that school populations have declined by a total of almost 300 students and that in terms of physical spacing of students in classrooms, it is important to note the effect of that on class sizes. From slides she presented, it appeared that the average number of students physically in a classroom would be 8 or 9.
Steinhaus said he had checked in with Public Education Sec. Ryan Stewart concerning the governors latest guidelines and was informed that there would be no impact on hybrid or small groups under the order. He said sports practices will go down to a total of five people in a group and that instead of nine students and one coach the new requirement would be four students and one coach. He noted that spacing and the number of students will provide for more one on one interaction and some of the kind of teachings that teachers dream of having that they have never had before.
“I think it will even provide some opportunity for catch up because there will be one on one interaction,” he said.
Prior to board questions on the presentations, President Ellen Ben-Naim offered board member Christine Bernstein to comment on her participation on the reopening issue. Bernstein had previously opted out of discussion and voting because of alleged conflict of interest due to a business she operates that provides educational assistance to students outside the school system.
Bernstein said she has read all the emails, listened and been “gratefully reminded as to why I’m here as a voice for my community”.
“Thank you for your patience with me while I have been navigating so many new things and learning and growing in this new environment that we’re all struggling with. After a long conversation with the attorney general and thinking long and hard, I have made a decision that I will not be recusing myself from any discussion or vote tonight,” she said.
She noted that she is currently working with grades 7-12 and not with elementary students so there’s no conflict of interest.
“My desire is for our district to make the best possible decision for our students and teachers. I created a business to support the learning for our kids and to relieve parents of the stress of trying to work with kids at home. I did this from my heart and from a place as an educator knowing that I could actually do some good. I have been rewarded by being able to work with great kids and get to see all aspects of this new COVID education,” Bernstein said. “I’m a parent of children struggling in school. I’m working with students – I get to see what they’re doing and what’s on their end of the system. I’m also an educator so I understand the struggles that teachers are facing as well. I realize I bring an honest perspective to what we all are dealing with… I will continue to be your voice.”