JohnRay Dennis, head teacher at San Antonio Elementary School, hurried over to the bright green “hurricane” on the school’s playground, where a half-dozen youngsters on Friday were hanging from the equipment, ready to spin.
“Three only! Three only!” he told the kids. He urged some of the students to jump off and reminded all that only three children are allowed on any single piece of playground equipment at one time, because of state coronavirus safety guidelines for schools.
“Only three at a time,” he repeated as he roamed the playground, making sure kids were wearing masks and following all the new rules.
San Antonio Elementary was one of three elementary schools in Socorro County that resumed in-person learning last week, which the state allowed for the first time since March in counties where the number of coronavirus cases has declined and school districts had re-entry plans approved by the New Mexico Public Education Department.
Parkview Elementary in Socorro and Midway Elementary in Polvadera, part of the Socorro Consolidated School District like San Antonio, also returned to in-person learning last week.
Magdalena schools have chosen not to return to in-person classes yet, even though they were authorized to do so. The Alamo Navajo Community School did not either, because it must follow the policies of the larger Navajo Nation, which has had one of the worst infection rates in the nation.
New Mexico so far has only authorized students from pre-kindergarten to grades 5 to return for in-person learning and they are only permitted in reduced numbers. Grades 6 to 8 will return next, depending on the status of the virus. Grades 9 to 12 will return last.
Under the state’s “hybrid” phase-in of inperson learning, schools can reopen at up to 50% of capacity if they can maintain social distancing. Families are given the option of whether their children will study in person or remotely, so long as there is enough space to accommodate them. All other students must study remotely.
Recess at San Antonio Elementary demonstrated how difficult it may be for schools to adhere strictly to COVID-19 guidelines in the comparatively unstructured environment of the playground.
Few kids were six feet apart. Groups of boys were roughhousing around an oversized swing. Running and playing, kids forgot about their masks, which sometimes slipped below their noses or further down.
When Dennis noticed that one child’s mask had fallen down, he called her by name, pointed to her face, and signaled for her to pull her mask back up over her nose.
“All of this is very new to everyone,” Dennis said. “We are doing everything we are required to do as best we can, but still realizing they are kids and they want to be outside, they want to run and play, and be a kid.”
Adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines was easier in the school building and classrooms than it was on the playground.
At San Antonio, the smallest of the Socorro district’s three elementary schools, 39 of 83 students, or 47%, attended in person last week. The rest studied remotely via technology.
When students and staff arrive in the morning, they must pass through a station at the front door where their temperature is taken automatically.
Hand sanitizer is available on a stand just inside the door. Every classroom has hand sanitizer, paper towels, and wipes available. Some students brought their own sanitizer. Custodians clean throughout the day and disinfect the school with a fogger daily after everyone leaves.
Because San Antonio is small, with only four regular classrooms and four teachers for six grades — multiple grades are combined in each classroom — the school’s strategy for providing both in-person and remote learning is different than at larger schools, such as Parkview in Socorro.
Each teacher taught both in-person and remote students simultaneously using large interactive screens in the classrooms to reach students not attending in person. But even within the school, there was variation in how teachers taught. San Antonio’s kindergarten teacher, Melanie Sanchez, chose to teach from home, so in-person students watched her on a screen in their classroom.
The most visually jarring scene was that of a 4th and 5th grade teacher, Amy Smythe, who taught in one room while her students sat in the next room, separated by a plastic sheet that covered a small opening between the rooms.
“That was the happy medium that we were able to come up with that would allow her to be in class and that provided her the sense of safety that she needed,” Dennis said.
Within classrooms, students sat at least six feet apart and all wore masks. Often students sat alone at tables designed for several students. Each student’s work area was surrounded on three sides by Plexiglas that formed a small, transparent cubicle.
All Socorro district schools use Google Classroom software to make interactive learning possible. Faculty and students alike have been forced to learn a variety of technological tools quickly and that has produced some unexpected benefits.
On Tuesday, Dennis said that one of his students asked what was the largest dinosaur ever discovered. While the class was discussing the question, another student on his own found a video online of an animation of the largest dinosaur and shared it with the class on the screen.
“That was amazing,” Dennis said. “That wouldn’t have happened in a regular school.”
Making a challenging situation more difficult, San Antonio lost Internet access during the storms that hit Socorro County last week and was without online access the rest of the week. Students attending school remotely had to do their work independently on their computers. Internet service was not restored until Tuesday, and remote students were linked to classrooms on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, Dennis said that the return to inperson learning has been beneficial. He said teachers and students have advanced considerably since spring in their use of the technology.
“I think we have a much stronger idea of what we’re needing to do,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t know what we were doing. We are taking it one day at a time. I tell my staff, it’s 80% attitude. If we have a good attitude, we’ll figure it out.”
Parkview Elementary is the largest elementary school in the Socorro district, with 415 students, more than five times as many as San Antonio. About one-third of Parkview students attended in person last week.
The school’s large size provides advantages but also creates additional difficulties. Because it has more teachers than San Antonio, each of its 20 grade-level teachers instruct either in-person or remote students exclusively, not both at the same time.
So in some classrooms, education looks much like it did before, except that classes are smaller, students are more widely spaced, and everyone wears masks. In other classrooms, teachers stand alone, teaching remote students via an interactive screen.
The added number of students, though, forces school officials to be more careful about reducing potential interactions and crowding among students.
When students arrive at school, they are escorted in socially-distanced groups to their classrooms, where they spend most of their day. They don’t go to most of their special classes, such as art or computer, because that would require them to leave their classrooms and travel down hallways, which would increase interactions.
Unlike at the smaller San Antonio or Midway schools, students don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. Instead, lunch is brought to their classrooms. The only time students leave their classrooms during the day, except to go to the restroom, is for gym and recess.
“We are managing the hallways to make sure kids aren’t gathering,” Parkview Principal Laurie Ocampo said. “We are making sure students are having the least amount of movement possible.”
Recess also requires extra precautions because of the large number of students. Kids are required to stay in small groups and remain six feet apart. They are not allowed to touch one other. They can’t throw balls back and forth, because of the potential for the virus to be transmitted on surfaces. They are not allowed to play basketball.
“We are being kind of crazy about it,” Ocampo said. “We want to make sure our kids are healthy and our staff is healthy.” Teachers are also incorporating instruction about the coronavirus, and guidelines for reducing risks, into their lessons.
Teachers of young children have stuffed animals in the classroom wearing masks. They tell stories about masks.
“Children are learning the whys of what we do,” Ocampo said. “We are making sure they understand the importance of being safe.”
The Parkview principal was wary about the return to in-person learning, but she said that students have adjusted to the COVID-19 world, and all the restrictions that it requires, quickly, which has reduced her concerns.
"I think we underestimate children,” she said. “They are totally keeping on their masks. They are doing everything we are asking them to do.”
Midway Elementary in Polvadera has the largest percentage of students among the three schools in the Socorro district who are attending school in person. Last week, 64 of 94 students, or 69%, attended in person.
That percentage would seem on the surface to violate state rules, but Julie Romero, Midway’s head teacher, said it does not because the school’s classrooms are large and can accommodate more students than are enrolled in the school.
“We have been able to socially distance and follow all the rules,” she said. “We are still in compliance.”
Romero said that a greater percentage of Midway students are attending in person than at other Socorro district schools because the area has poor Internet service, making it more difficult for students to study remotely.
In fact, more Midway parents wanted their children to attend in person than are able to do so because of the state requirements that limit schools to 50% of capacity.
“We’re having to put a hold on accepting any more students for in-person leaning,” she said.
Because Midway is a small school, its pandemic practices are similar to those of San Antonio. But each school has its own variations.
A teacher at Midway devised a fun way to help young children remember to social distance. When they line up, they are told to extend their arms and fingers as far as possible, making sure not to touch the children next to them. They are told to imagine their outstretched arms and fingers are moose antlers.
Children are reminded wherever they go — at recess, in the cafeteria, and elsewhere — to maintain their “moose antler space.”
Reflecting on the first week of in-person education, Romero, like her counterparts at San Antonio and Parkview, thought it went surprisingly well, and that students benefited greatly from returning to actual classrooms where teachers weren’t pixels on a screen.
“It’s not normal,” she said. “It’s not routine. It’s not habit. But I think our kids in one week are doing really great jobs. Although it’s not an ideal situation, our students are able to participate in learning. They’ve been able to interact with teachers and their peers. It’s been very exciting. I feel like we’re finally able to give them what they need to do well academically."