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Cedar Attanasio
Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico public schools have a long way to go if they are to meet goals for returning students to the classroom set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the administration of President Joe Biden.

An analysis by The Associated Press shows that 5 percent of students from kindergarten through grade 8 can walk through school doors full time. The national average for a similar age group was around 45 percent in February.

The governor has urged schools to open their doors to in-person learning for all students on April 5.

On Thursday, Biden reiterated his goal to have over half of K-8 schools open by April 30, his 100th day in office.

The state and federal government are dedicating enormous resources to rebooting in-person education and making up for learning loss. State officials haven't estimated the toll on learning for the entire pandemic, but a legislative analysis found learning loss of between four and 12 months as a result of the last spring's closures alone. 

An increased percentage of New Mexico students were failing at least one class last fall, and some rural districts still hadn't connected students to the internet. The clock is ticking to get students in front of teachers before the semester ends.

More students can access full-time and partial in-person learning in New Mexico as more teachers get vaccinated and more schools open their doors. Around 85% of all educators including those who work in pre-K and universities have received at least one shot and a third are fully vaccinated.

Lujan Grisham gave schools the green light to reopen starting March 8.

Since then, the federal government included an additional $900 million in funds for New Mexico schools and part of The American Rescue Plan and loosened social distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet, allowing more students in each classroom. 

"I can't think of anything in my career that will have the impact on children that this bill will have. And, and I think it's going to be incumbent upon all of us to follow through and follow the lives of these kids, and hold up the success stories that this creates," said Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich on Thursday in a presentation alongside education advocates highlighting the Act.

The Public Education Department says nearly 30 percent of students have access to some form of in-person learning, including those who are part of small-group or special education programs, attend two days per week in a hybrid system, or attend full time. Some schools in the state normally run four days per week, but most are five.

A Biden administration survey of school reentry found that nearly 60 percent of Black and Latino students attended schools in remote learning modes in February, compared to nearly 30 percent of white students. Access by Native American students varied widely by region, and not enough surveys were collected from New Mexico or the Southwest to draw conclusions.

Remote learning had a disproportionate impact on Native American, rural, and students who are learning English as a second language. But no agency tracks access to in-person learning by equity metrics like race or area income levels. 

The Navajo Nation reported in a survey taken by the state a year ago this month said that around 75 percent of its students did not have internet at home. State efforts and federal funds allowed schools to purchase hotspots and laptops for many students in the ensuing months, though some didn't have access as early as December.

The New Mexico Public Education Department provides weekly updates on school reentry status, but does not break down the numbers by enrollment for full or remote learners. It also doesn't track demographics.

"PED is offering its full support to help every New Mexico district and charter school return to full in-person learning on or before April 5," said spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

Citing logistical hurdles to testing during the pandemic, state officials have asked for a federal waiver from blanket testing requirements that could reduce spring testing from blanket assessment of 95 percent of students to a representative sample of around 1%. Education advocates worry the lack of tracking and assessment might complicate efforts to target needy students next year. 

"We have been a bit disappointed in that the PED has not been tracking sort of educational outcomes and harms done in quite the way that we would like to see happen," said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, in the presentation with Heinrich.

He applauded state officials for taking emergency measures to get students online, and for laying the groundwork for expanding broadband in a bill that passed last week. 

"I feel like they — Governor Lujan Grisham, and the (education) secretary — have tried to begin to address that, and the Legislature just created an office of broadband — essentially, technology — to make sure that we can start addressing this lack of access in a systemic way," Jimenez said.

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This story has been corrected. President Joe Biden's 100th day in office is April 30, not March 20.

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.