Editor’s note: The news release below has been corrected by PED. The lead incorrectly reported that small groups of pre-K to third-grade students and students with disabilities will be allowed to continue in-person learning during the two-week pause in January. In-person learning in small groups (a 5:1 student/teacher ratio) will be limited during that time to students with disabilities — not the general pre-K to third-grade population. Remaining students are eligible to return to their pre-break schedules, whether hybrid or small groups, beginning Jan. 18.
PUBLIC EDUCATION DEPARTMENT NEWS
Small groups of pre-K to third-grade students and students with disabilities will be allowed to continue in-person learning during the two-week pause in January, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced Friday.
The announcement is a change in the plan announced earlier this month to pause all in-person learning from Jan. 2 to Jan. 18 to avoid post-holiday spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve consistently tried to prioritize our pre-K through third-graders and students with disabilities for in-person learning given their needs,” Secretary Stewart said. “After much discussion, we now feel we can manage those safely, so we made that change.”
The pause after winter break still affects all other in-person learning and activities, including athletics. Schools previously operating in the hybrid model may return to their hybrid schedules the week of Jan. 18.
“It’s our hope by taking these proactive steps, we’ll better position New Mexico to expand in-person learning in the coming year,” Stewart said at a virtual news conference on mid-year achievements and new-year goals.
“This is a call to action to everyone to take the important actions it takes to beat back this virus. We want to maintain and continue to build on the progress we’re making across the state,” he said.
Stewart said despite the pandemic, the first half of the 2020-2021 academic year was highlighted by increased family engagement, educator initiative and technological improvements.
Stewart praised families for becoming more engaged in student learning and educators for their innovation, adaptability and creativity in the first full semester amid the global pandemic.
“Parents have become partners in teaching like never before. I’ve heard many teachers say they’ve never been as closely connected to families about their children’s learning.” Stewart said. “New Mexico educators should be counted among the heroes of this pandemic for how quickly they’ve adapted and how hard they’ve worked to keep our children engaged and learning.”
Increased access to digital technology went hand-in-hand with increased technical literacy for New Mexico teachers and students alike this fall, Stewart said.
Midyear accomplishments included extending broadband internet access to many New Mexico communities and getting digital devices into the hands of thousands of students who previously lacked them — essentials to participating in remote learning during the pandemic, Stewart said.
“More remains to be done. The problem of internet access is not new to New Mexico and will not be resolved entirely in one year,” Stewart said. “Nevertheless, with the help of our partners, we have reduced the digital divide, and this work will continue until every child has what is needed to succeed academically. That is our commitment.”
Stewart also acknowledged the academic and social-emotional challenges students faced this fall with limited or no in-person learning during an explosion of virus cases across New Mexico.
“Students in classrooms with talented educators — that’s the gold standard, and it’s always been our goal to get back there as quickly as we can safely do so. Unfortunately, the pandemic did not cooperate this fall,” he said.
When school districts and charter schools first reported attendance/enrollment figures to the PED in late October, it appeared that as many as 12,000 students who were enrolled in the spring were not enrolled in the fall. Stewart said PED released that figure before the normal vetting process because of public concern over reports of pandemic-related enrollment declines.
“Now, as PED and our agency and school partners cross-check databases, that number is rapidly falling,” Stewart said. As of Friday, some 5,000 New Mexico students had been crossed off the unaccounted-for list because data show they are being homeschooled, have enrolled elsewhere or have withdrawn for another reason.
Stewart said the work would continue until every student is known to be safe and engaged in learning.
New Mexico was among the first states last spring to recognize the magnitude of the challenge students faced transitioning to remote learning and, with the Graduation Alliance, established a program, Engage NM, to support them and keep them engaged in learning.
This fall alone, New Mexico school districts have referred 32,348 students to Engage NM, Stewart said. Engage counselors have contacted 12,400 families so far, with 9,400 families opting in to coaching. Efforts continue to contact 19,500 more students to get them re-engaged in learning.
“Engage NM is the most important tool we have to help students who are struggling with the challenges of remote learning,” Stewart said.
As vaccines become available and the pandemic recedes, the secretary said New Mexico will steadily return to in-person learning. To that end, the PED budget request for fiscal year 2022 seeks $95 million to support pandemic remediation efforts including more counselors and advisers, additional instructional hours and professional development to help teachers learn accelerated instructional methods.
“We have a lot of rebuilding to do, and we will do it,” Stewart said.
The PED budget request also would direct more money to schools with students who have the greatest need, Stewart said. He described budget proposals to create a Family Income Index and to hold districts harmless for the federal Impact Aid they receive to help educate Native American students.
“Equity is at the heart of this budget. We’re proposing changes that will get additional money and resources to the students who need them most,” the secretary said. “A budget expresses an organization’s priorities, and ours are equity, excellence and relevance.”