District policies block students from learning remotely after COVID scares

Protocols and staffing limitations hinder students who have to miss school for safety reasons

By: - August 31, 2021 6:45 am

(Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Dinner after the first day of school was interrupted by an automated voice call for parents from Zuni Public Schools. 

A person at the Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School tested positive for the coronavirus.

With little knowledge other than that there was an incident, Lawrence Loretto decided to keep his three children home for three days. They attend the elementary, middle and high school on Zuni Pueblo. 

The next day, he talked with the principal at the elementary school, letting him know about the decision to keep them out until he felt it would be a safe environment. “He said I wasn’t the only parent that kind of freaked out because of that automated service,” Loretto said. The best way for the schools to communicate with parents and guardians in Zuni, Loretto added, is to just send a written note home clarifying the situation with more info.

That evening, a letter went home to parents alerting them that another person caught the virus.

Loretto’s children would be out of school for a total of three days — a parent’s choice to protect his kids. 

District policy allows only those students who enrolled in online school to attend it. That means students who attend in-person school can’t take the online classes if they must quarantine. Instead, those students get a take-home packet of school work or nothing. Loretto said his children got nothing.

Zuni Public School District Superintendent Randy Stickney said the take-home packets for students are picked up by parents or delivered to their house by a school employee. She did not respond to questions about complaints of take-home work not getting to students in quarantine. and said the district’s online-only option has a small classroom of one. “We have one student who has been enrolled in remote learning, to date,” she said.

His elementary school student did receive catch-up work when she returned. The other two were not so lucky. 

“(She) got 14, 15 pages of homework,” he said. “And the other two were basically told, you know, you missed it, and you’re behind. So catch up if you can.”

Dowa Yalanne is on the southeastern part of Zuni Pueblo. (Photo by Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

The pandemic created gaps for students who lost instructional time during the 2020 transition to remote learning. Students likely lost between three months and a year of learning due to the pandemic, according to a report by the state’s Legislative Finance Committee.

“All students lost at least five to eight weeks’ worth of class-time instruction, with the youngest children losing the most,” according to the LFC report. 

Making up that learning time is a priority as schools head into the year with in-person instruction. But COVID protocols and staffing limitations are hindrances to making sure students who have to miss school for safety reasons are staying on pace to catch up from last year. 

Zuni Public Schools is a plaintiff in the landmark Yazzie-Martinez education lawsuit, decided in 2018. The district’s student population is predominantly Native American and considered at-risk. 

In a motion filed in December, then-ZPS Superintendent Daniel Benavidez addressed how the pandemic caused further technology issues for the district’s students.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated the opportunity gaps in an already unfair state public education system in which some districts, families and students have access to broadband internet, while others, like Zuni Schools and its students and families, do not,” he wrote. District Court Judge Matthew Wilson supported the plaintiffs and said the state of New Mexico is required to provide adequate technical and digital support for students like those in Zuni. 

Efforts in the past year to connect students to the internet have gone full-speed. As of May, nearly 70 percent of students in Zuni had reliable access to the internet. 

And the state just reported that it provided 6,252 Chromebooks to 22 tribes and districts with high Native American populations, 101 hotspots for tribal schools and tribes, and 700 hotspots for people’s homes on the Navajo Nation. 

New Mexico also distributed $9.5 million for tribal schools and libraries, typically the hub for internet access to the rural communities. 

Last year, Zuni Pueblo said it used COVID-relief money to supply hotspots on buses that were designed to support students working from home. 

So with all this tech infrastructure in place, why not build out better support for students who are quarantining or might otherwise need a hybrid model? That’s what Lawrence Loretto wants to know.

Stickney said in-person instruction is the goal for the district. “A majority of our students are better engaged in the learning process when they are in face-to-face.”

It’s also unclear if the state’s Public Education Department has relief options for districts like ZPS. In an emailed response to inquiries from Source New Mexico, PED said it’s up to the school district to decide how to keep students engaged when they have to quarantine, and any issues parents have should be addressed to their school.

“It is a school- and district-level goal to ensure all students have access to the materials they need, and should be in communication with the student and family to ensure the student has what is needed during a quarantine period,” said PED spokesperson Carolyn Graham.

The Education Department does acknowledge the case counts are climbing. “Because we are back in classrooms, we are seeing an increase in the number of cases across the state,” Graham said. 

Loretto experienced another COVID scare just last week. His niece went to the school nurse with a sore throat, he said, and she was quickly sent home under coronavirus precautions. That meant a 10-day quarantine and mandatory negative test result before returning to school. He said she did not receive a take-home packet and did not have any options to do online work. “They immediately isolated her and called me to pick her up,” he said. She had to go get a COVID test and results came back negative the next day, but she still had to stay home for 10 days under school policy, he added.

Loretto’s left with more questions than answers. He said his kids did their makeup work and hustled to catch up, and their grades are fine, but he wonders why they don’t have a hybrid option.

At the end of the Spring 2021 semester as the pandemic danger wound down, many students were part of a model like that where some went in-person, and some were still remote. “It’s possible to do it,” Loretto said. “If not, maybe they should have just stayed home until there was more information about the spikes in the variant.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.