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.
See Part 1 one of meeting coverage: https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/10/14/los-alamos-school-board-votes-4-1-to-begin-hybrid-learning-oct-19-as-planned/
Board President Ben-Naim noted that the board was in a difficult situation with a difficult dilemma to work through and that board members were empathetic to teachers and families on both sides of the issue – ones who want to stay in the remote mode and who are worried about catching and transmitting an awful disease.
She noted the social-emotional concerns of the stress involved and the social-emotional concerns of transitioning to yet another model, and the concern about the possibility of needing to transition back to remote if COVID numbers here get really bad and the disruption that will bring to teachers, families and students.
“Of course, it’s completely natural that there’s the fear of the unknown – the remote model is sort of the beast that we know – we’ve never done hybrid before. I think we’re all very empathetic to teachers and families of students who are prepared and ready to transition and deeply frustrated and even angry about the delays and those who are struggling in this remote model and feel like good, solid education isn’t happening for them. We all know that face to face learning time is the most effective and then there are the social and emotional concerns on that side of the argument about isolation and families stressed and all kinds of issues,” Ben-Naim said.
She asked the board to focus not on the pluses and minuses of each learning model because that had been done very thoroughly at the Sept. 8 meeting.
“What I’d like us to focus on right now is what’s different tonight and what I see different tonight is we’re three full days before we would go to hybrid and we’ve heard a lot about the readiness, the safety plan, the criteria for starting. We’ve heard a little bit about the context of where we are right now with our state numbers. I think what’s even more important is what’s happening in our county and our region because we have students coming from different counties in our region and a smaller number of staff,” she said. “I want us to think about what the repercussions might be if the numbers keeping going higher and higher for COVID and if we transition to hybrid and have to go back to remote and the lack of stability and continuity in that context.”
Ben-Naim said she hadn’t made her mind up 100 percent and wanted to hear all of the presentation and discussion.
“With that said, I’m leaning towards transitioning to hybrid on Monday. I feel like the very careful planning has been done and we in remote have been doing a pretty good job if meeting teachers’ needs and students’ needs on a case by case basis and I think we’re prepared to do that as we transition. The criteria we set as a board, we’ve met – the criteria set by the state. While the numbers to the south and east of us are concerning, I feel like where we are right now we should give it a try despite the risks of probably needing to go back to remote at some point,” Ben-Naim said. “I feel the benefits outweigh the risks and that we can’t have an expectation of zero COVID transmission in our town and region to be able to have school in the hybrid model. I feel like we are doing everything possible to mitigate those risks and there’s not a zero risk scenario for in-person school even before the pandemic.”
She asked what options are available for people who really feel at this point hybrid is not good for them.
Steinhaus responded that if a parent wants to transition to the Los Alamos Online Learning Academy on Monday instead of going to hybrid, they should contact (Asst. Supt.) Jennifer Guy immediately and LAPS would do everything possible to find a spot.
“So far we have been able to meet every single one of those requests. And that is our goal in the future. If we have to hire another teacher in the online learning academy to meet the need, we will come back to the board and ask for that additional FTE so that we can meet the parents’ requests,” he said..
Board member Dawn Jalbert voiced concerns about safety procedures for kids as they come into the school and whether or not temperatures would be taken. Steinhaus said parents are being encouraged to use the Eagle Intelligent Health app and a paper form with set of questions developed by the school nurses. He said the Eagle app gives a list of students that have checked in and those that have not, and nurses and principals will have access to that data.
“We will be able to check with students that did not report and we will have thermometers and check in procedures, temperature checking and checking for symptoms when they’re at school, but if we can get most of them done at home, things will go much more quickly at school and we’ll be able to spend much more time on learning. We don’t want students in a big long line bunched up waiting to get their temperature checked,” Steinhaus said.
Board member Steve Boerigter explained that he was attending the meeting via Zoom and not attending in the board room because he had traveled out of state and was observing quarantine. He said that he believes in process and is not an expert in anything by any means believes in following the rules.
“When I ran for the school board, I ran as somebody that believes in education, who believes in public education and fairness and equity in how that education builds achievement and success for all – and in particular for those who are less advantaged to be able to have access to the support structures at home that many of our students simply do not have,” he said. “I never ran for the school board thinking I would be an expert or knowledgeable on public health. I believe that the experts in transitioning or understanding the relationship to our current health situation and how that can be impacted in our schools, those people are in the Department of Health and the Public Education Department.”
He said if LAPS follows all the requirements of the DOH and the PED to return students to the classroom then he thinks that should be done.
“I think it is actually a bit disingenuous for us here in Los Alamos to be second-guessing our experts. We’re knowledgeable about Los Alamos and in fact the situation in Los Alamos seems to be good, but it is also not us it seems to me who need to be making the COVID decision – we need to make the student education decision. That’s why we’re on the public school board.”
Boerigter said he understands the concerns that have been expressed about the potential for the COVID situation to change and become worse, and that if LAPS begins hybrid learning it may have to resort back to remote learning.
“I assert that that transition and that disruption is orders of magnitude less than the disruption that occurred last March and we had to work our way through that transition. It maybe wasn’t the best and the smoothest but we did. Our teachers and our staff are highly capable and engaged and they can endure that transition. So, I will say that I do not fear the potential for a transition back to remote only should the COVID situation actually change to the point where the PED and the DOH send us back to remote only,” he said. “I do not fear the transition. I hope it won’t happen. I wouldn’t say I trust it won’t happen but I do have hope that it won’t happen.”
Boerigter said the thought Steinhaus hit the nail on the head with his opening comments exactly to the mark.
“It’s easy for us to understand the fear associated with COVID and its impacts on both ourselves, our elders, other people we know – certainly many with pre-existing health conditions – and in our children. But we cannot underestimate the impact on young people for their lack of wellbeing and their lack of achievement – both of which we know are in fact happening. Student wellbeing and student achievement are the first and the second goals of the LAPS strategic plan and both of these goals are less well met when students are staring at a computer all day and that is most especially true for our youngest students. So as long as we meet the PED and DOH guidelines I believe we should go to the hybrid model as originally stated,” he said.
Board member Melanie Colgan said she had been reading the emails she received and wanted to assure everybody that has been writing that the board has been following the data that’s available to it.
“The main things are that we have had a very low case rate since March. The case rate continues to be low for our county as well as in surrounding communities. We’ve also had people from Northern New Mexico traveling into Los Alamos since the very beginning of COVID. They work at Smith’s, the County, the hospital and the Lab and with all of that traveling, we still have a very low case rate here in Los Alamos,” she said.
Colgan noted that the schools have been planning for the hybrid transition for a long time.
“We’ve had a chance to go over the schedule with a fine tooth comb. Is it perfect? No. But it is the next step that we need to take. We have voted on this twice now as a board and I feel that it is time that we follow through with our decision. The wellbeing of our students is in our hands, not just the education of our students but their actual wellbeing,” she said.
Colgan noted Dr. Anthony Fauci as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics have said schools need to reopen and children need to be back in class. She said as a nurse, she has spoken with local pediatricians, pediatric nurses in Los Alamos and elsewhere and that they all paint the same picture.
“They have seen a rise in behavioral, emotional and mental illnesses in children around the state and in our local community. Parents are asking for increases in their children’s behavioral medications and child abuse and substance abuse are on the rise. I have heard from many, many parents and the one thing they keep saying over and over again is remote learning is failing our students,” she said.
Colgan said that at the previous board meeting board members thought that if they gave the remote option a little more time, people would get used to it.
“Unfortunately I have heard just the opposite. The children have not gotten used to remote. In fact the stress and anxiety remote has brought has really led to a breaking point and as a result of that breaking point we’re starting to see more children dis-enroll from schools. If we continue in remote learning, I really feel that our children will fall behind academically, that the achievement gap between stable and at-risk students will get even larger and that behavioral, emotional and mental health issues will become more frequent not just in our students but in our entire population,” she said.
Colgan said she understands that teachers are stressed and that teachers, parents and students are afraid.
“There’s a great fear of the unknown. There have been many teachers, even teachers within our own union who have stated they desperately want to go back to school. They’re willing to face their fears to go back to school. These teachers cite the current workload as being unsustainable and they find an inability to effectively teach children in a remote setting, especially the youngest children that they have,” she said. “Teachers have even mentioned to me that they will look for other employment if we continue in remote.”
She said Los Alamos has proven that it can be safe.
“We wear masks, we social distance and we follow the rules. Our great reward for all of this should be to send our children back to school,” Colgan said.
Ben-Naim noted that since Aug. 13 leadership at each school site and at the district has worked really hard teacher by teacher and family by family to problem solve.
“I have full confidence that that will help going forward with whatever model we choose. I am also empathetic to the fear, disappointment and anger that is likely from half of the staff given the divide here. I wish we weren’t put in that position, but that is where we are,” she said. “We already know that large numbers of our children are mixing in our town in activities like daycare and social groups and we haven’t seen the COVID numbers rising from that so that makes me then more confident that we can do this.”
She said she has been hearing from teachers that there are a number of issues to work out and questions to be answered.
“We have the rest of this week to work on that and I agree that it will probably be a scramble but it always is when we get up to deadline time. I don’t think it’s insurmountable. So much really good planning has been done and I’d like to make a plea for perfect not to be the enemy of very good,” Ben Naim said. She asked that leadership take a careful look at some of the staffing issues that were brought up.
Board member Dawn Jalbert said she is not a statistician or a scientist and asked to look at the results of the staff survey results if the Chamisa Elementary staff numbers were removed to see how the results changed. The results changed from 48.3 percent favoring the remote option and 51.7 percent favoring the hybrid option to 50.2 percent favoring remote and 49.8 percent favoring hybrid.
She noted that has read all the letter she received and responded to most of them. She said some of the letter are “quite frankly rude and angry”.
“I hear parents’ stress but I also hear teachers’ stress. And I hope parents are hearing that, because honestly I’ve been pretty saddened by the amount of truly hateful rhetoric that you’re hearing on social media – calling out specific teachers and calling people chicken and fearful and saying if you don’t agree with going back to school fulltime then all of a sudden you’re labeled with some obdurate language which is ridiculous. It doesn’t help the conversation. I would encourage everybody in this conversation to maintain some civility. We’re all doing the best we can with the situation,” Jalbert said.
She said one of the most influential letters she had read was from a Los Alamos National Laboratory COVID modeling team which said there absolutely would be a rise in cases when kids go back to school.
“I would encourage us to pay attention to that,” she said.
Jalbert noted that there has been no testing that shows severe lapses in learning, that the allegations are anecdotal.
“There may be other factors that are affecting your child and their performance in school including the way it is being reacted to by parents who are stressed. Again, I want to emphasize I am not faulting you guys, to be working from home online and focusing on your child’s education simultaneously. I’m not sure why you think that’s going to change significantly going into a hybrid model when you have teachers doing two different jobs the same way you are,” she said.
She said the situation in New Mexico is fast changing situation in New Mexico as all are aware.
“But wouldn’t a science- and data-based decision be one that is responsive to the changing data. That’s why we’re here again tonight revisiting this issue. Our numbers are skyrocketing in this state. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Los Alamos is in a nice little bubble but we have too many people coming and going that we are not going to be able make this sustainable. Wouldn’t it be more important that we are responsive to the changing data rather than making a run and done decision and calling it a day?” she said.
Jalbert said the hybrid return is requiring teachers to totally trust parents who may or may not be candid about their exposure which she said is why she asked how schools are following up on taking temperatures and isolating kids.
“My personal observation is that this town started out really great with wearing masks and social isolation and as is human nature, we have dropped our guard. I’ve not seen as much of that kind of behavior particularly among kids. I also haven’t seen that much among parents who are filling up the brewpub and filling up different restaurants….If their exposure has increased, then so has their child’s exposure and then their child goes to school and that increases the exposure for staff. I would ask people to consider that,” she said.
She noted that everyone’s goal is to return to school full-time.
“It’s not like anyone here prefers online teaching. Nobody went into this hoping to be front of a computer for six or seven hours a day. No child learns well that way. We get it. However no child works well with teachers that are in and out sick or dead. That’s pretty traumatic too and teachers don’t get a choice in this. Parents have a choice whether to continue online or figure out another way to teach your kids and the schools have really stepped up and tried to help with that providing additional services and maximum flexibility,” Jalbert said. “I just wonder how many parents are really taking advantage of that instead of just saying no I want to go back to the way it was last February and that’s not possible.”
She said she feels the board made a commitment to return with hybrid Oct. 19 and needs to honor that but on the flipside she is also really concerned about the rising numbers.
“How nimble can we be in going back to online learning – not if but when it becomes necessary again. I would caution to be careful what you’re asking for because you may get a system that is less consistent, less effective for your child than we’ve already got. I have deep concerns about that,” she said.
Boerigter said he has a tremendous faith in both the teachers of LAPS and the leadership team.
“I appreciate the absolutely countless hours that all of you have put in trying to make the very best of the current situation and to prepare for the very best next step in our teaching of our young people. I have absolute, 100 percent complete faith that you want is best for both our young people and our community at large. There’s no fraction of our community that I don’t have total faith that you are looking out for the best for,” he said. “With that said, I’m here tonight because I believe in public education. I believe public education is central to a civilized and functional democracy. It is in fact what helps us to create and maintain a civilized and functional democracy and in fact I think the challenges in public education, especially for those underserved members of our community are just great and those challenges are made greater by an entirely remote setting.”
Boerigter said he believes those challenges must be breached to help improve the situation for so many young people for whom the current situation is not really serving as quality public .
“Given that we have the approval from DOH who are the New Mexico experts in this situation given that other school districts in New Mexico – in places where there are more concerns with more coronavirus than we have here – I believe that we have to return to hybrid learning. We need to stick to our plan to do what we said we were going to do the way we said we were going to do it and that is really what is best for our young people and best on the whole for our community,” he concluded.
Colgan noted that she sympathizes with teachers and understands that they are as stressed and overwhelmed as many are with COVID.
“I don’t want to minimize that. The letter from the union was taken to heart here on the board. I fully support our teachers’ union but what did disturb me is that I got several letters from teachers who are part of the union who said that the letter did not represent them. I do feel that our teachers always, always do right for our children and I also have complete faith in our teachers. In this case there’s too much on the line. There’s too much at stake for our children. They desperately need to go back to school. What we’re doing is not working for the majority of our students. There will be bumps along the way. Hybrid is not perfect but I do feel it is what is needed at this moment in time,” she said.
Bernstein said she hears the frustration from everybody – teachers, parents and children.
“Remote learning had tons of potential for looking at education differently and all I have seen at this time is that it has exposed the flaws in our education. I still think that it could work but I also feel it is important that we stick to the decision that was made a few weeks ago,” she said. “Remote learning is not going to be perfect. Hybrid learning is not going to be perfect. There will be all kinds of issues. There are going to be people no matter what unhappy. This is a situation where we are not going to be able to make everybody happy and it isn’t possible.”
She said she hopes the board will continue to look at the hybrid model to see what is working and not working and remain flexible so as to make improvements and support teachers as they need it.
“This is like an experiment. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. This is not like anything we have ever done and I want to see us continuously evaluating what’s working and what’s not working and I think that needs to be systematic so that we can make adjustments as needed and not be hard and fast. In best interest of teachers and kids, we have to remember that,” Bernstein said.