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State education secretary visits Lake Arthur students

New Mexico Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart talks Tuesday with Lake Arthur High School dual credit math students during one of six school district tours he has planned for two days in southeast New Mexico. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Stewart says start of hybrid learning prompts southeast NM tour

Lake Arthur Municipal Schools fourth to 12th graders have been back in their classrooms for only two days now. New Mexico Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart decided to spend the morning with them to see how school was going.

“Are you all excited to be back?” he asked a group of middle school students who were wearing masks and sitting far from each other. “How was the first semester with all of it online? Do you feel a lot better now? We are happy to have you guys back in the classroom. How was day one?”

The New Mexico Public Education Department decided in late January to allow public schools to return this Monday to hybrid learning, which is a mix of online learning and in-person instruction. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, public school buildings closed in March 2020 and switched to remote learning. Only small groups of special needs or pre-kindergarten to third grade students have been allowed to meet in-person since the fall.

Lake Arthur was one of the school districts ready for students to be back in classrooms Monday, having adopted COVID-safe protocols and coming up with a plan for fourth to 12th graders to meet in classrooms for core classes and continue online learning for elective courses. The district also is resuming six-person football practice. Lake Arthur has received board and PED approval for its plans and has passed two building safety inspections.

Superintendent Elisa Begueria and Principal Kathleen Gallaway said they were pleased that Stewart has supported the return to in-person learning and they thought his visit would provide evidence that schools can offer safe classroom instruction.

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The Lake Arthur district was the only one in Chaves County that Stewart planned on visiting during a two-day period. The other districts he intended to tour are in Artesia, Carlsbad, Lovington, Loving and Tatum.

Stewart said his questions of administrators, teachers and students are meant to see what the state could do to help the hybrid transition, as well as gauge how people are feeling about their school experiences.

“This is really to get a chance to see how things are going on the ground,” he said, “see where some of the questions are, anything we could be supporting, see how people are operationalizing the different ways that you can do a hybrid model.”

Stewart and the PED also announced Tuesday that the state is asking the U.S. Department of Education to waive standardized testing in New Mexico public schools for spring 2021, as it did for spring 2020. If the waiver is granted, those districts that choose to use standardized testing would use them to determine learning needs and outcomes only, rather than use test scores to make crucial decisions about students, teachers or schools.

Begueria and Gallaway told Stewart, who was accompanied by a PED communication specialist, that they have felt supported by the PED during the past year and that a new round of federal coronavirus relief funding will be used to hire a counselor to boost the emotional and social well-being of students.

As a participant in the community schools program funded by the state that is intended to make public schools a place where the community gathers for intellectual and social improvement, Lake Arthur already offers on-site medical services and a community fitness room.

In terms of areas Begueria and Gallaway thought improvement could occur, they said they would appreciate more clear communication and decisions from state officials that they then could communicate to parents, especially as they already are planning for the 2021-22 school year. They also said they would like to see small districts such as theirs have more flexibility with data and compliance reporting requirements, given that they have fewer staff to do that work.

With 115 students, they said they have been able to remain connected to their students, even during the remote learning period. Unlike some districts, they did not opt for a third-party online learning platforms, but instead required teachers to hold their classroom sessions with students at the usual scheduled time via Google classrooms. For the four students who have decided not to return for hybrid learning, they will be using computer learning platforms.

Begueria and Gallaway said they also kept the lines of communication open by delivering school meals to students’ homes for the past year, and they have held twice weekly social events in the parking area of the school so that teachers and students could just talk and connect.

Partly as a result, they said, academic outcomes have not suffered from the online learning period. Academic intervention occurred if students were struggling, but so did social and emotional interventions, Begueria said.

For the most part, students who shared with Stewart said they liked being back in classrooms, although many also said that they thought remote learning had been going well. Begueria said that so far students have willingly worn face coverings, but said the first day they tended to congregate in groups between classes, which the school administrators have had to address. She also said that students have asked to switch cohorts to be with friends, which Begueria said is understandable but not possible.

Both local and state officials said that the current academic year has been filled with uncertainties and constant adjustments.

“This is the first time I have planned a re-entry during a global pandemic,” Begueria said.

“Challenging only scratches the surface on this year,” Stewart said, “but we are hopefully finding our footing and our way back.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.