By Kate Noble
Santa Fe School Board president offers practical suggestions and guiding principles for this period of transition.
Everything is different in 2020, including going “Back to School.” The Santa Fe Public Schools will begin the 2020-2021 school year with at least nine weeks of remote learning. Then, if infection rates are low enough, SFPS will begin a gradual re-entry and “hybrid model” combining remote and in-person learning.
Gradual re-entry will start with special education students and younger students — in other words, those who are likely to benefit most from in-person instruction. It will give each school, and the school district, an opportunity to test protocols such as screening and social distancing, and improve as needed. When, and if, we begin re-entry, many more details will be communicated with families. For now, we begin the year with remote learning.
It’s already been a tough year for families with the spring’s last-minute remote-learning program, canceled summer plans, the uncertainty and anxiety of a pandemic, plus the worsening economic crisis, social upheaval around racism, toxic politics, record heat and drought (again), and probably a few more factors.
Things are changing in our schools and in our society. We are likely at the beginning of a prolonged period of transition, which ideally will lead to a better, more just society. We can, and should, all be a positive part of the changes. So, as a parent and the president of the SFPS school board, the question “What do families need to know for back to school?” is both about practical information and the guiding principles we need to evolve this system.
The guiding principles
Most of all, we need to do three key things: Be gentle and kind, remain flexible and stay committed to active communication. In this uncertain world, committing to these simple and powerful ideas will give us a strong foundation for a successful school year together.
First, we should be gentle and kind to ourselves and others. Huge gratitude to Michelle Obama for calling out the “low-level depression” many of us are experiencing and have not been able to name. The exhaustion of all this is real, and taking care of ourselves has never been more important. We can all simply do our best in the current environment, even if it is not up to our past standards. Children need this compassion, too; they are likely absorbing more from the world around than we ever realize and often they don’t have their peers and tools for processing all of this.
Being gentle and kind to others is also critically important — crucially, teachers and school staff. Not only are they humans, too, who share our exhaustion, anxiety, family stress and more, but they are reinventing their profession and rapidly developing new skills and tools to serve students. They deserve and need support and respect, and none of us should give in to the temptation for passive-aggressive or straight-up aggressive behavior of taking out frustrations on these hard-working and still underpaid professionals.
Second, we must remain flexible. Being comfortable with uncertainly is incredibly difficult, and many of us may never truly get there. Nonetheless, uncertainty seems the new normal for a while, and being able to adapt is one of the keys to successful evolution. Remote learning will be challenging, yet it will be better than it was in the spring. Even if we get to return to in-person, anyone exposed to COVID-19 will have to quarantine, and as schools improve on protocols, basic routines may need to be adjusted. SFPS Superintendent Dr. Veronica C. Garcia often says we are “a continual improvement district,” meaning we adjust and work to make things better in an ongoing way. In this work, we need families and staff to help, to make adjustments and to be willing to make changes for progress.
Third, we need active communication. At its core, public education is about the collective good. It is about working together as a society to do our absolute best for children. Ideally, this means authentic engagement (with kindness and flexibility) from everyone in our school community. Families should communicate with teachers about what is working and what is not working for their student(s). We should all share ideas and be open to hearing them. If things get rough and a teacher doesn’t seem receptive, talk to the school’s principal. If the principal can’t seem to listen, issues can go up through the chain of command (each principal has a supervisor, and ultimately, the superintendent is in charge).
Getting involved in a child’s classroom and school, offering to help, supporting the parent-teacher or school advisory group will be more important than ever. At the district and schools, many are working to plug in volunteers, tutors, technology support, plus assistance for food other essential needs, and more help will always be needed. Students are likely to need more support for their academics and certainly for their social/emotional needs. The more SFPS professionals know about how students are doing, the better they will adapt. This is going to take all of us, so please: Ask questions, share information, don’t assume anyone knows what seems obvious instead communicate clearly and frequently. We are truly stronger together.
The practical information
To stay up to date with specific back-to-school plans, families should be in touch with each student’s school. The SFPS website (sfps.info) has an updated list of Frequently Asked Questions that is a good resource for families.
Most of all, the school year is about returning to a healthy routine to support school. Ideally, families will support students in all that this means, including getting plenty of sleep, eating well, and having a place for doing schoolwork. Every student should have a device from SFPS (iPad, Chromebook, etc.); if not, contact the Technology Help Desk at email@example.com or (505) 467-HELP. Any issues or questions should go to this number.
As the school year gets going, teachers will be making adjustments and working to meet individual student needs, so the above principles will be important to remember and use. This is unprecedented territory, and we need to work together. This crisis can be an opportunity to turn the tide for a stronger future for public education. Personally, I am committed to this work, with every cell in my body, for as long as it takes.
For anyone who wants to help, please consider volunteering in the schools or donating to one of the wonderful nonprofit partners who provide critical support for students and teachers. Please reach out to me personally if you have questions on how to plug in or ideas on how we can make progress going forward. This is an opportunity for us to build back a better school system. Let’s not go back to the status quo.
Now, and going forward, we need deep roots and support in the community for all of the areas that schools have taken on in addition to teaching and learning (e.g. food, internet access, housing, utilities, health and wellness). This community has so many assets in its people, especially in our families, volunteers, and dedicated staff. To all of you engaged in this work, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all you do for Santa Fe’s children.