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Local legislators laud restart of in-person learning

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Governor also proposes increased broadband, recreational cannabis

Chaves County legislators applauded Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s announcement Tuesday expanding in-person learning in school districts across the state, but were less enthusiastic about other agenda items in her State of the State address.

Beginning Feb. 8, all New Mexico school districts will be able to adopt a hybrid model of learning for students of all ages, while taking measures to limit transmission of COVID-19.

Schools in all 33 New Mexico counties have not had full in-person learning since March 2020 when schools were ordered to close and conduct classes remotely due to the pandemic.

Elementary schools in certain counties that have met the state’s gating criteria have been able to offer limited in-person classes. Most middle and high schools though have been restricted to virtual learning even if they are in the Green Level of the state’s three-tiered risk assessment system.

Lujan Grisham said the adjustment to the state’s approach follows months of consultation with the New Mexico Department of Health, school administrators, charter school leaders and teachers’ unions, in crafting “a solid, epidemiologically sound plan” for safe expansion of in-person learning.

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Members of Chaves County’s all-Republican delegation applauded the move by Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

“That’s a move in the right direction,” House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said after the address.

State Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, a member of the House Education Committee, lauded the expansion of in-person learning as “a huge step forward.”

“We will take any change we can get back in a face to face situation where they are able to learn,” Ezzell said.

Reopening schools, at least in a limited capacity, has been a high priority for legislators and other state officials. Many have criticized remote learning as a poor substitute for education in a traditional classroom setting that lacks much of the structure and benefits of in-person learning.

Ezzell said special needs students are not getting the opportunities for direct help with their studies that is more readily available in a traditional classroom setting.

She added that she has even heard from educators and parents who tell her that some students who have typically thrived in the classroom are now receiving failing grades as they struggle to adapt to remote learning.

Critics also say remote learning is having a detrimental effect on children who have become more isolated since the pandemic got underway.

“When they are around each other, there is an energy that is created when people associate with each other and we’re not seeing that right now and I think that is having a negative impact on our kids,” state Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, said.

Though increasing the amount of in-person learning is a good development, state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said there are only a few months left in the school year and he believes more could have been done to allow in-person learning.

“I feel like we should have already been in some type of a hybrid model and now be moving into full open,” he said.

Broadband

Though combating the pandemic and the economic fallout it has created was a constant theme that ran through her address, Lujan Grisham said the state should move ahead in other areas that will diversify and shore up its economy in the long run and warned against what she called forced austerity and drastic reductions in state spending.

“A crisis like the one we experienced last year can be viewed as a loss — or as an invitation to rethink the status quo, to be ambitious and creative, and bold,” she said.

Calling it the most urgently needed infrastructure investment, Lujan Grisham called on the Legislature to commit half of its capital outlay allocations — some $200 million — to increasing access to broadband within the state.

Local lawmakers though said while increased access to broadband might be needed, there are other avenues to acquire the money rather than the capital outlay lawmakers use to fund local projects and infrastructure improvements within their districts.

Pirtle said the governor’s office typically is provided with a third of capital outlay dollars not reserved for the Legislature that she can use to spend as she feels is needed.

“We have so many other huge infrastructure needs: sewer lines, roads, dams, all of those things in the district that really are shovel ready with projects ready to go that have been submitted by our communities,” Pirtle said.

Ezzell, a veteran member of the House since 2005, said similar bills have been proposed in past legislative sessions. And while lawmakers can appropriate money for greater broadband access, that is just one obstacle and at the end of the day, it is private sector internet providers and companies that have the means and infrastructure to make that happen.

Cannabis

Among the laundry list of priorities Lujan Grisham spoke about in her address was for both houses of the Legislature to pass a bill to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational cannabis, something which she said could encourage additional business development, create jobs and provide the state with another source of tax revenue.

Pirtle in 2019 helped carry a bill to legalize but tightly regulate the sale of cannabis, a version of which passed the House narrowly but was not taken up in the Senate.

Such a bill, he said, is something he would consider backing if it could also address public safety concerns.

One element of a potential bill Pirtle said he believes is a requirement that someone who purchases have a proof of purchase with them to show it was obtained lawfully.

“That is one of the big sticking points for me is having some type of proof of purchase so that we know that people are in possession of cannabis that was acquired legally instead of from the black market,” he said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301 or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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