Back to School—Hopefully

For some students and teachers, the 2021-22 academic year was “the hardest school year ever.” So says Claire Noonan, who teaches environmental science at Santa Fe High School and has two kids entering second and fourth grade, respectively.

She, her students and her own children were exhausted, struggling to navigate hybrid learning and uncertainty—so she was relieved when Santa Fe Public Schools made the decision to decline state funds to add 10 extra days to the academic calendar for the school year that began this week.

The money represented a legislative attempt to address pandemic-driven learning loss, but staff, parents and students in the capital lobbied overwhelmingly for a traditional school year in 2022-23. It’s a decision Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez supports for a number of reasons: First, students and staff are still grappling with the stress, grief and uncertainty of the pandemic, which isn’t conducive to catching up in school.

Second, chronic absenteeism has spiked.

“There was a lot of trauma that came from remote learning and the pandemic,” Chavez tells SFR. Students struggled in class, acted out or became more withdrawn. The mental and emotional scars also contributed to absenteeism.

An exact comparison of chronic absenteeism rates pre- and post-pandemic is difficult, says Crystal Ybarra, the district’s chief equity, diversity and engagement officer, because the criteria changed with the state Attendance for Success Act. Before it went into effect in 2020, chronic absenteeism was defined as missing 10 days, while the act upped that number to 10% of school days.

But the spike is evident in the two full school years during the pandemic: In 2020-21, more than a third of students were chronically absent. In 2021-22, more than 50% missed too many days.

With that in mind, Chavez says, adding more days to the school year is just adding more days for kids to miss.

“When you haven’t addressed the health of staff and students and you haven’t addressed the absenteeism, you take a chance of widening the achievement gap,” Chavez says.

So he chose a different approach, taking the summer to come up with strategies to re-engage kids in their studies. He says solutions won’t be one-size-fits-all—a lot will depend on keeping in better touch with students’ families to figure out what obstacles they’re facing.

That will be the primary path with elementary school students, Chavez says. By staying engaged with families, schools can better understand how to overcome absenteeism.

“It could be as simple as having somebody meet them outside to walk ‘em across the street,” Chavez says.

For high-schoolers, though, he has an additional plan. During the past school year, SFPS piloted an internship program that matched high school students with partners such as the New Mexico Department of Transportation, and student nutritional and custodial services. Housing insecurity and economic disadvantage are among the leading indicators for absenteeism, and Chavez’s idea is that kids who miss school or drop out because they have to work to support their families are able to earn school credit and income at the same time.

Chavez plans to expand that program this year, offering internships with businesses and community groups throughout the district. He’s not yet sure how many spots will be available, but says that once the school year is back in gear they’ll start gauging kids’ interest—and tailor the program accordingly.

Noonan, the Santa Fe High science teacher, plans to focus the upcoming year on helping kids readjust to in-person learning.

Her own kids had a tough time not being able to hang out with friends when they were attending school online, she says. For her youngest—who was going into kindergarten when the pandemic began—the biggest disappointment was not being able to go to the playground.

“That’s when he lost it,” she says. “There was an upset over not being able to be there physically and play.”

So for her kids, returning to in-person schooling was a relief: time with friends, structure and a respite from sitting in front of screens with an uncertain internet connection.

For others, though, the return was fraught. Noonan says many of her students opted to remain online. She stayed flexible, converting assignments such as recorded lecture videos, which kids could access at any time.

In the upcoming school year, all her students will be back in the classroom, but she’ll continue to accommodate online options if kids get sick.

For the kids who have returned, Noonan has noticed a change.

“A lot of students retreated into a digital world and that was a very hard transition,” she says. “Even if they’re physically coming back to class, if they’ve still got their phone and are totally tuned in that way, it’s very challenging for them to unplug and then actually be present in the physical classroom space again.”

She wants to support kids getting to know each other—which can be tough in a school of over 1,500 students—using games in the classroom to help them start talking. One is a version of “Would you rather,” in which students rank which environmental issues they believe are most pressing.

While obligations at home and work do contribute to student absences, Noonan says, a big part of the issue is that kids “just want to go hang out in the bathrooms with each other.” After years of isolation, spending time with friends is something kids “deeply crave.”

Noonan says absenteeism has been an issue long before the pandemic—she’s been teaching in Santa Fe public schools for five years—but it’s increased significantly since then.

For Juliana Ciano, co-founder of Reunity Resources and parent of two children who are going into third and fifth grades at El Camino Real Academy, the district’s decision not to extend the school year is a mixed bag.

“We’ve all been through and are in a global pandemic, and sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn’t happen isn’t the healthiest way forward,” Ciano says, acknowledging that students, staff and parents have been stretched too thin.

On the other hand, extending the school year could’ve been welcome for working parents and guardians.

“At a systemic level, until we’re able to separate childcare from education, schools are playing that role of being childcare—so it’s a really difficult decision,” she says. “I really respect our superintendent and our school board for navigating it because trying to find what collectively works best for students and teachers is a really tall order.”