In her 2021 State of the State address, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lobbed quite a news grenade: she announced public schools could reopen for in-classroom learning just two weeks later, on Feb. 8. While it certainly got everyone’s attention, unusual for a State of the State speech, the statement wasn’t anything close to unequivocal.
First, much of the reopening decision had been left to individual counties prior to the governor’s statement, based on their specific red-yellow-green status and other considerations. Many private schools, in particular parochial schools, have been open this entire year. Certain public school students have been receiving classroom education this year based on specific criteria according to special needs. Meanwhile school sports under the New Mexico Athletic Association have been banned statewide. Parents, teachers, and students can agree on this: the 2020-2021 school year has been at best a challenge and at worst a mess.
So far, the response to the governor’s order (What actually was that? A mandate? A statement? A suggestion?) has been similarly murky. Parents want their children to receive in-person learning in safe classrooms and buildings. Teachers want to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. Unions want all this and possibly some other stuff. Students want to get back to normal after having two school years yanked out from under them. Every school district has to answer these concerns on their own. It’s easier for some than others.
Hobbs schools have a schedule laid out and orientation planned for reopening on the 22nd. Santa Fe Schools will re-open for hybrid learning Feb. 22. Las Vegas schools will remain closed the remainder of the school year. Quay and Catron County schools are fully open because they are tiny and the county infection rates are low. And from there the decisions devolve. The Las Cruces School District board met this week and could not make a decision. The Cobre School board in Grant County met this week and told the superintendent to return with an actionable plan it could vote upon. And the granddaddy of them all, Albuquerque Public Schools, held a marathon board meeting Wednesday evening and tabled the issue for two weeks (With 5,200 teachers, 140 school buildings, and the most vocal union in the state, I find it highly unlikely APS will open fully this school year; too big to fail and too big to succeed).
One thing I do know: New Mexico, under Democratic budget-setting legislatures, has been pounding half our taxes down a public education rathole for at least three decades with almost zero concern about outcomes or accountability. It was was not until the Martinez administration that our high school graduation rate tipped above 70% in 2018 (Woo-hoo! Only one out of three kids is dropping out of high school! Yay, us!). $3.3 billion is targeted for public education in this year’s Democratic state budget, that, as usual, funds not just our schools, but layers of administration and special programs and the like. But that won’t be allocated until July, when the new fiscal year starts. Fortunately, New Mexico did receive $460 million in CARES funding from the latest stimulus, most of which goes directly to individual districts, so they do have some relief coming their way as they navigate reopening. But if we wait for the eternally Democratic legislature to give our schools some real help, that is, funding and programs that will improve outcomes for our children, well, we will be waiting a while.
If you go to the Public Education Department website, there is a sizable amount of guidance on the criteria schools must meet to open safely, as well as a list of current reopening status. There is also a recording of a lovely locally written children’s story being read aloud by the lieutenant governor. But if you are looking for a plan, a roadmap to get thousands of New Mexico children struggling to learn and progress from remote screens back into brick-and-mortar classrooms, well, you’re on your own.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.