NM Schools dealing with increased vacancies

NM schools dealing with increased vacancies

Elizabeth Schilling looks at her watch: 8:47 a.m. The school day is three minutes away. It has been four months since she took over this kindergarten class after the teacher that began the year resigned. In front of her are 12 desks for her in-person learners, all six feet apart. Her laptop computer is set up for students who have chosen to stay remote for the remainder of the school year. One-by-one kids begin to file in, equipped with iPads and masks.  

Schilling has been teaching for over 10 years, and New Mexico is the third state that she has taught in, but she hasn’t been in this situation before — taking over a class in the middle of the school year. 

Across campus at the same school, Greg Brannagin faces the same challenge. He stepped in to replace the teacher who started the year and it’s been a bit bumpy. 

“When I came into this second grade class, I had no idea where the students were at in their learning,” Brannagin said. “Come to find out they were already a month behind the other second grade classes here, and I have to try to figure out how to make that up over the final few weeks of school.”

These stories from New Mexico classrooms increased over the past nine months, as many veteran teachers opted  to quit, relocate, retire, or take a medical exemption. The driving force behind these sudden vacancies was the pandemic — first the demand to switch to remote teaching, then the demand to return to in-person instruction.

One of the most prevalent options teachers are exercising is the medical exemption which allows them to be excused for the rest of the school year, keep their pay, and keep their jobs for the upcoming year

Teacher shortages were already a big challenge in New Mexico schools. Heading into the school year, the New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report counted 571 educator vacancies. That number is trending upward due in large part to the pandemic.

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The vacancy report author, Dr. Rachel Boren of New Mexico State University, says it’s hard to predict what the new school year will bring.

“I’m not sure about projections at this point since there is so much uncertainty surrounding schools next year,” Boren said. “But I look forward to seeing where the numbers fall.”

Given year-after-year of teacher shortages in New Mexico, the Los Alamos National Lab Foundation compiled a report offering recommendations to school districts on ways to retain teachers. These include such things as employing teachers who are from the local community, do more to prepare teachers for the challenges ahead, and support districts to better train and pay teachers. Although the report was released during the pandemic, it doesn’t address the pandemic as a factor in teacher vacancies.

Still, one thing districts are doing to ultimately keep their teachers for the long term, is to give them the short term medical exemptions. 

Albuquerque Public Schools has handed out 1800 medical exemptions. Rio Rancho Public Schools handed out 61. Santa Fe Schools had 600 medical exemptions, all of which were handed out in late January when discussions focused on returning to the classrooms.

“It’s not that we don’t want to be with our kids. Teachers love children, that’s why we do this.” said Billie Helean, Rio Rancho Schools’ Employee Union President, at a recent school board meeting. “I love being in the classroom with my students. I love it so much, but at what cost?” 

“To me, personally, it’s not worth the cost of someone’s health or their life,” she said.

At Albuquerque Public Schools, half of the medical exemptions granted were in the elementary schools. That’s where Tammy Silva was drafted into replacing a classroom teacher.

“I wasn’t hired to be a teacher inside of a classroom,” Silva said. “I don’t get paid as much as a teacher and was even told that this was only going to be temporary. I get the feeling it’s not.” 

Silva normally teaches computer lab but has been teaching sixth grade since the resumption of in-person learning on April 5th.

Meanwhile, down the hall, in her kindergarten classroom, Elizabeth Schilling takes attendance and closes her door. 

“It doesn’t feel normal coming into a class in the middle of the year,” she said, “but the students have been great with the adjustment, and that has made this a little easier.”

Perseverance and UNM

Here is my pre-edited piece on Perseverance reconnecting UNM trio to Mars in case it doesn’t get published.

The control room is silent inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA’s Perseverance rover team sits watching their computer screens intently. The team then hears in its headset, “Touchdown.” The room erupts into cheers. It is Thursday Feb. 18th, and the Perseverance rover has just touched down successfully in Jezero Crater on our cosmic neighbor Mars, and begin its mission of searching for signs of ancient life and to collect rocks to bring back to Earth for study.

Nearly 800 miles from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Albuquerque, there is also celebration and a big sigh of relief from Dr. Horton Newsom, Dr. Louis Scuderi and PhD student Zachary Gallegos. The sighs of relief are a sign of how much time and effort that all scientists, not just these three, put into getting Perseverance to Mars. 

For Gallegos, the landing was extremely special. “The site selection for Perseverance’s landing began in 2013,” Gallegos said. “And I have been actively involved in that process since then. We’ve had a meeting about every two years to propose and pair down the sites. When we got down to four sites, I was incharge of looking at Jezero Crater and the Syrtis area around Jezero.”

NASA chose the Jezero Crater as the landing site because of a couple of key reasons. First, there are parts of the 750-mile wide crater that are smooth and conducive for a good landing. Second is what they like to call the megabreccia. 

“What megabreccia is is a process where there has been a high impact on the crust that throws up big blocks of the crust of the planet,” Gallegos said. “So, my job on the team was to figure out where those blocks were and what we could gain by taking samples of them. And the reason its important to look there is that it can tell us about the past history of the crust and any alterations that may have happened because of water.” 

With the appearance of Jezero Crater, the belief is strong that it once held the water and rock deposits that NASA was looking for. “It has the shape that a river delta once existed in Jezero Crater,” Gallegos said. “And it appears as though the river emptied out into a big lake in the crater. And so if you wanted to look for signs of past life on Mars, you would need to look where there was signs of water, which Jezero is a good place for that.”

“One of the main reasons why Jezero was selected was the delta,” says Dr. Scuderi, professor at UNM and an affiliate with the Mars Science Laboratory Team at Los Alamos National Labs. “Deltas on Earth are super highly productive as far as biological life. So, we know that this is a place that we need to look for biological life on Mars.” 

“What we are looking for is rocks that have broken off the edge of the layers in the delta,” Scuderi said. “Reason being is that the surface of Mars gets a lot of radiation coming in, since it has hardly any atmosphere, and so the rocks that have been laying around the surface for a while have been exposed to that radiation and the bilogical material that woud have been there gets reduced and you really can’t see anything at all.” 

In the future, Perseverance will go over the the edges of the delta inside Jezero Crater to collect samples from those rocks that have broken off the layered edge, something that Scuderi and the team he’s a part of have already mapped.

“We’ve mapped literally hundreds of thousands of boulders,” says Scuderi. “Those boulders are in places where Perseverance can literally go to and sample. We want to do sampling from geological materials and with hopes in the future of bringing those back to Earth with another mission.”

The pictures already sent back from Perseverance have Scuderi taking notice. 

“You take a look at the pictures and it looks just like New Mexico,” Scuderi says. “So, that is interesting as well, but looking at the pictures, we can tell that there indeed was a lake and a delta that was in Jezero Crater. So, for us, that is big in what we are trying to accomplish.”

The pictures from Perseverance of the surface of Jezero Crater also have Dr. Horton Newsom in awe. 

“I look at the pictures of the ridge from the crater and then look out my window at the Sandia Mountains and it’s like looking at a replica,” Newsom said. “That’s really neat to look at.”

Dr. Newsom works with a team that works on Perseverance’s SuperCam. The SuperCam was invented at Los Alamos National Labs in collaboration with the French Space Agency, the Univeristy of Toulouse in France, along with partners from Hawaii and Spain. 

“What the SuperCam does is that it examines rocks and soil,” Newsom said. “It does that with a camera, a laser to blast dust off surfaces to get a better look at surfaces.”

These things Newsom can control right here from New Mexico. “We have a lot of perverbial safety nets that we go through in order to do something with Perseverance so as to not get it into someplace that we cannot get out of,” Newsom said. “But I can initiate the movement from here.” 

With Curiostiy already having been on Mars since 2012, the hope is that Perseverance will go beyond a decade and collect samples that could be brought back to UNM.

“The hope is to bring some samples from Mars to here at UNM,” Newsom said. “And then the students then will be able to study those.”

The technology involved amazes Scuderi. “The technology has come a long way and I’m just in awe of how the scientists work on it has come along,” Scuderi said. “I’m excited for the next decade to say the least.”

With the teams involving Newsom, Scuderi and Gallegos, UNM is prime to be involved in the Perseverance mission for years to come.

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