A look inside Las Cruces Catholic School, which returned to in-person learning last month

LAS CRUCES – Students talk to one another and teachers in class, while other kids run and play during recess at Las Cruces Catholic School.

LCCS, a private school, is going forward with in-person education this semester, and the voices of children in the hallways and outside are a stark contrast to the public schools in the area, which will be closed to most students through this calendar year as a way to combat the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which is responsible for COVID-19.

The catholic school, which includes preschool through eighth grade, has yet to report positive case of COVID-19 since it opened Aug. 19.

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Principal Adrian Galaz said a majority of teachers surveyed before the start of the semester favored a return to in-person instruction.

“We understand our responsibility to provide high academics, but also meeting their social and emotional needs has been a definite plus during this time,” Galaz said. “We are not offering a foolproof plan in our school, it’s just a matter of having several layers of protection.”

The school semester began with three options for students. They could return to fully in-person instruction, fully online instruction or a hybrid. Galaz said roughly 170 students have physically been going to campus while 30 to 40 students are learning remotely.

Virtual instruction has been implemented by setting up webcams in every classroom and students then join class remotely through Google Meet, Galaz explained. This allows students to receive real-time instruction while maintaining their health. He added that none of the school’s measures are high tech.

“There’s other schools that probably have a better infrastructure than we do it and we’re still able to maintain this capability,” he said.

Galaz said the school has put in place many precautions, including temperature checks of all students and staff, mask requirements, outside handwashing stations, reduced class sizes and mask break stations – where students can take off their masks in a safe place. Middle school teachers also switch between classes rather than the students. Galaz provided a list of implemented practices:

  • Continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and New Mexico Department of Health
  • Communication with staff, students and parents
  • Temperature checks for both staff and students
  • Every room has a designated thermometer
  • Desks are socially distanced within the classroom settings
  • New drop-off and pick-up procedures and locations — designated areas for students and parents
  • Signage, fluorescent tape, cones, etc. on campus and in the school buildings
  • Masks are required in the building and on campus, unless in a designated “safe zone”
  • No physical contact during recess (grabbing or high contact sports)
  • Frequent sanitation (restrooms) utilizing a checklist indicating times and frequency
  • Hand sanitizer stations placed at entry points of both buildings
  • HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Ari) purifiers with ultraviolet lighting and a three-layer filtration system placed in all classrooms
  • Installed preschool tabletop barriers/dividers for students to have their own “protected” area
  • Water fountains are not being used in the main hallways
  • Touchless bathroom facility upgrades
  • Portable handwashing stations placed outdoors
  • Misting machines (hospital grade cleaner) used on the playground and end-of-day in the buildings
  • Classrooms have been restructured to limit movement and restrict sharing of school supplies
  • Middle school students do not rotate for core subjects
  • Lockers are not being utilized. A crate system in the classroom has been implemented to contain belongings
  • No visitors are allowed (extremely limited)
  • Lunch in classrooms or outside
  • Staggered recess times to limit numbers of students
  • Symptomatic students are sent home
  • Quarantine for out-of-state travel or exposure

“I witness even our younger students abiding daily to our safety expectations. I recall a first-grade student running towards a classmate wanting to give her friend a hug. The other friend replied ‘no hugs remember’ but they did do an air hug. Yes, this sounds sad, but it also has elements of beauty in it, that students are resilient and able to adapt while discovering alternative ways to communicate and interact safely,” Galaz said.

‘Excited to get back’

Katie Tomicek, the school’s middle school band director as well as a parent, said she had mixed feelings about returning to in-person class at first, but is ultimately glad the school went in the direction of reopening.

“I was excited to get back in the classroom with the kids, but of course there was some apprehension. We want to make sure we’re keeping the staff and the kids safe,” Tomicek said. “I think the administration has done a really good job planning and thinking through everything.”

However, band class has had to change because of the large class size and the proximity of the students to each other. Tomicek said she has shifted to teaching music theory, history and bucket drumming rather than making music with typical instruments.

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One difficulty Tomicek mentioned was the pacing of class —having to teach the in-person and online students simultaneously and keeping them all engaged. But, “it’s just another skill and it gets easier the more we do it,” she said.

Despite the learning curve, Tomicek said she has not had much pushback about the changes made this semester from students, who she said “know that the other option is all online … so they’re following the rules.” She said her students miss playing their instruments, but she thinks children are resilient and will manage the changes.

Tomicek has a daughter at LCCS in eighth grade who she said is happy to be back in school and able to socialize with her friends face-to-face.

“They learn through experience,” Tomicek said. “They’re experiential learners, so they need kind of that social interaction and to be doing, a lot more than just necessarily reading something.”

Parents Adriana Silva, Maxine Rel and Christy Saiz voiced similar opinions, saying they appreciated the school holding in-person classes because their children are benefiting from interacting with their teachers and classmates.

“He’s just thrilled to be back in school,” Silva said of her third-grade son. “You can just see a difference in their demeanor as far as how they’re, you know, happy, excited, exercising.”

Saiz said she has older sons at Las Cruces High School who are struggling with the fully online format, which she said is “just not that same education.”

“It’s different and it’s hard,” Saiz said. “I don’t think that high schoolers or middle schoolers or elementary-age students are equipped to do that. You know, you do that when you get to college.” She said she anticipates the mental health of students not experiencing in-person teaching will be a big issue in the future.

Private school has a wait list

Galaz said the private school has received quite a bit of positive feedback and they hope their model can be a “blueprint” for other schools to reopen. Meanwhile, he added that many parents have reached out to LCCS asking if there is room at the school because they have concerns about their children’s learning at other schools, but the private school has a wait list.

“The story is often the same. My child is falling behind academically. Remote learning is not working. My student needs social interaction. My child is depressed. And so on,” Galaz said

The New Mexico Public Education Department is allowing public elementary schools to reopen if a district is in a county that has fewer than 8 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate under 5%.

Doña Ana County now meets those gating requirements.

On Tuesday the Las Cruces Public Schools board voted unanimously to remain remote until Dec. 18 or longer based on state and local advisory. Face-to-face instruction opportunities will be offered for small groups of students in special education, preschool students and “At-Promise youth” which includes new English learners, homeless students, migrant students, foster students, students who are not engaged and students struggling in the online environment and are at risk of failure.

“When we look at Las Cruces Catholic School who has 200 students and they are back, you know, at a 25% capacity for their building, they’re working under a different level of rules than we are,” LCPS Superintendent Karen Trujillo said during the school board meeting.

Leah Romero is a fellow with the New Mexico Local News Fund and can be reached at [email protected] or @rromero_leah on Twitter.

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