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New Mexico teachers union opposes bill extending school year

February 4, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021, file photo, preparations are made at the New Mexico Senate chamber as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse on the first day of a legislative session in Santa Fe, N.M. New Mexico’s largest teachers union is opposing legislation that would extend the school year to make up for learning that was lost during the coronavirus pandemic. Students face unprecedented setbacks during the pandemic and court rulings pressure state leaders to improve student outcomes, which were some of the worst in the nation even before the virus hit. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021, file photo, preparations are made at the New Mexico Senate chamber as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse on the first day of a legislative session in Santa Fe, N.M. New Mexico’s largest teachers union is opposing legislation that would extend the school year to make up for learning that was lost during the coronavirus pandemic. Students face unprecedented setbacks during the pandemic and court rulings pressure state leaders to improve student outcomes, which were some of the worst in the nation even before the virus hit. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico teachers union is opposing legislation that would extend the school year to make up for learning that was lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

Children are facing unprecedented setbacks amid online instruction, and court rulings are pressuring state leaders to improve student outcomes, which were some of the worst in the nation even before the virus hit.

“This is one way to help those students gain back what they’ve lost and to move ahead academically in the future,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired teacher who sponsored the bill. “It’s money that we have. It’s two evidence-based programs that are already being used all over the state.”

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Those programs offer state funding to extend elementary school calendars by 25 days and upper grades by 10 days. Teachers, who are normally unpaid during summer months, effectively get a 6% to 14% raise when they participate.

Union leaders and lawmakers like Stewart agree that extended learning is good for students, citing several studies that have documented 20% improvements in academic performance.

But only a third of school districts participated in the programs in the 2019-2020 school year. During the pandemic, participation fell even further among elementary school programs, leaving over $100 million allocated by the Legislature unused.

School officials say teachers often don’t want to work the extra days and cite staffing as the primary challenge to offering the extended learning.

Mandating the program would restrict teachers’ summer vacations too much, according to New Mexico leaders for the National Education Association, the union representing teachers from the largest number of districts in the state. The union is organizing members to lobby against the bill.

“Teachers need a break. Our districts are going to work until (mid-June). They would have two weeks off, and then we’d have to start K-Plus,” NEA Bernalillo President Jennifer Trujillo said, referring to the elementary-age extended learning program. “If teachers aren’t happy and supported and have everything at their fingertips, they’re not going to be successful.”

Trujillo says she welcomed a portion of Stewart’s bill that allows districts to decide when to add the extra days, including in the spring or summer 2022.

Other union officials say the extended learning requirements could hurt teacher retention, especially among those who aren’t tied to New Mexico.

“For some of these communities that depend on teachers from other countries — like, we also have teachers from the Philippines, right, that are just dying to go back to their country to spend a summer,” NEA New Mexico spokesman Steve Sianez said.

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Stewart said she is working some additional flexibility into the legislation after hearing from superintendents and teachers but that the state will still need educators to participate. The senator said she understands how they feel.

“I think everyone is frustrated, and teachers are working 24/7,” she said. “They’re tired. And they’re frustrated. And it doesn’t help that we’ve kind of had a hiccup with teachers and the vaccine distribution.”

Teachers are prioritized for vaccines, and some received them in January, including the entire staff of a small private school in Santa Fe. But clinics for teacher vaccines at large public schools were canceled later in the month due to supply constraints and miscommunications with health officials.

Legislative research reports indicate that learning loss during the pandemic could range from five to 12 months depending on students’ vulnerability — those without secure housing and rural children lacking solid internet access are some of the most at risk.

Anecdotally, teachers nationwide say that even when students connect, they’re getting less instruction time as material is trimmed down during the pandemic.

Even before the virus, a New Mexico court ruled in 2018 that around 80% of children — including those who are low income, learning English or Indigenous — receive education so deficient that it violates the state Constitution.

Increased learning time has been one of lawmakers’ main responses to that ruling. It’s possible the courts could take over education funding and policy if schools do not improve.

In December, teachers’ out-of-state vacations that might have required quarantine were a factor in canceling in-person learning.

Stewart wants teachers in classrooms more next year.

“We need all hands on deck. And this was a way to fund it,” the senator said of her bill. “Because we didn’t use these programs this year, we have the funding to do this in every school for every student.”

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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.