SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s top education official during the pandemic headed into his final days in Santa Fe saying outdoor classrooms could have allowed more in-person instruction when schools were closed last year and may be key to addressing parents’ masking concerns.
Education Secretary Ryan Stewart leaves on Friday, two years into his term, citing the need to be near family as his father faces serious illness.
Last Thursday, Stewart spoke with the Associated Press about the Public Education Department’s accomplishments under his tenure and what he would have done differently during the pandemic.
As a former director of education innovation, first at a Philadelphia school district and later a nonprofit based in the same city, Stewart was brought to New Mexico to bring sweeping institutional change.
Before the pandemic, he oversaw the elimination of teacher assessment systems long criticized by Democrats for being punitive in a state that struggles with teacher recruitment and retention. His department also digitized more aspects of the educational bureaucracy and pioneered a new funding system to target poverty at the individual school level.
Most reforms have been blunted, slowed or eclipsed by the urgency and scope of the pandemic, which left thousands of students isolated, their only education facilitated through paper packets. The true scope of technological deprivation during the pandemic, as well as unfinished or lost learning, has yet to be fully documented.
Stewart said he has been pushing for outdoor learning, telling education leaders he could fund shade structures, furniture, and staff training.
“I’ve been pushing on all of these calls. I’m like, ’Hey guys, masks are a big issue in your community. You don’t want to wear them? We’ll help you. And let us know what you need. Let’s get an outdoor learning program going. Then your kids don’t have to wear masks. And they like being outside.’” Stewart said.
He said there weren’t any takers among state superintendents.
School districts with 100 students or less were allowed to stay open, with regular COVID-19 testing.
Some private schools also offered classes in person. The United World College, a residential high school with around 200 students, kept the virus under control by isolating from the surrounding community. The Tutorial School in Santa Fe held outdoor classes.
Officials at Santa Fe Public Schools said last year they were ordering shade structures with their own funds as part of an existing outdoor learning plan. But outdoor classes never happened on a large scale.
Stewart urged superintendents to consider outdoor schooling again, as parents keep kids out of school due to concerns about rising infections and, conversely, protests over masking requirements.
While the pandemic shut down some attempts at innovation, it drove others by forcing teachers to catch up to the 20th century.
From Las Cruces to Santa Fe and Farmington, the 2020 fall semester started with some teachers not having at-home internet or their own computers. Some didn’t really use email, let alone videoconferencing.
“We’ve moved everybody up to a baseline” of understanding email, videoconferencing and learning management systems, Stewart said.
Many students didn’t have computers until December or later, missing direct engagement with teachers through the entire fall semester. Supply chains were strained across the globe, with every school ordering laptops at about the same time.
In Lovington, a small district in eastern New Mexico, Stewart will be remembered for his role in securing laptops for students after a vendor fell short on promises to deliver them September.
Still, he acknowledges there were areas where the state could have moved faster.
Stewart leaves New Mexico with unfinished business ranging from the lowest education outcomes in the country to an unresolved long-standing lawsuit over a lack of adequate educational opportunities for Indigenous and Hispanic children.
The Public Education Department continues to challenge a 2018 court judgment that found education in the state falls short of constitutional requirements for up to 80% of the children — Native Americans, English language learners and those in low-income households.
Stewart says he developed a blueprint to address the lawsuit, but it won’t be released until after he leaves.
The Public Education Department consulted with dozens of education and other advocacy groups for the draft but didn’t include the plaintiffs who could ultimately agree to close the case.
Since the case is still pending, Stewart said that complicates efforts to work directly with the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Stewart cited progress in Native American education, from a seismic shift in funding to schools in Indigenous communities to increased funding for Indigenous language education.
It’s possible that Stewart’s largest contribution to New Mexico’s school system is one of the least known.
Working with the state tax department, education officials created a new way to target poverty-stricken schools by creating a detailed index of family income. Stewart’s innovation was to tap into data that his department is not allowed to see — tax returns — and get it aggregated by school area.
With some $30 million set aside for around 100 schools serving the poorest communities, the pilot project will generate data that the Legislature could use to consider expanding the funding formula.
“I’m super proud of the Family Income Index. I think that it’s a really good (example) of state agencies coming together to try to work and solve a problem,” Stewart said. “I think we’re going to look back in five years and say (we’re) really glad we did that and other states are copying us.”
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.