There was no college course that could have prepared Emily Merritt, rookie kindergarten teacher, for this situation.

Just how do you get through to a student who’s come to his online class in pajamas?

Merritt, who teaches at Amy Biehl Community School, knew at that moment this was not going to be a normal year for anyone — much less a first-year educator just a few months removed from college.

“You ask them, ‘Oh, are you sick?’ ” Merritt said. “ ‘No, I just don’t feel like getting out of bed.’ You’re like, where is that line? Do I tell them, ‘No, you have to get out of bed,’ or do I respect that they’re at their own home and I have to give them their space?

“That’s something I would have never considered before this.”

Such conundrums never cease in a COVID-19 teaching world that straddles a blurry line between virtual and virtually impossible.

Teachers in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico say that while they are trying to adjust to the realities the novel coronavirus has imposed on education, they worry the increasing demands placed on their time, effort and enthusiasm will be corrosive over time.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García expressed concern that the effects of the school year may prompt some teachers to leave the profession — already a nagging worry in a district where many are near retirement. The apprehension remains, she added, despite a New Mexico State University report released Tuesday that showed teacher vacancies across the state dropped for the second straight year to 571 openings in 2020.

“It’s a concern,” García said. “This is uncharted territory, but I hope people will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, we will start to see vaccines at the start of [2021], which is what they’re saying. That could give people a little bit of hope that things will turn around and get better.”

Ryan Stewart, secretary of the state Public Education Department, said the pandemic has created uncertainty and acknowledged the impact on the teaching profession won’t truly be known for a while.

“My hope is, between all the work that we’re doing to create as healthy an environment as we can to bring our educators back, to being very deliberate about how we do so, and the continued work that we are doing around our educator ecosystem generally, that we’ll continue to see the progress that we’re making on decreasing the vacancy rate continue into the future,” Stewart said.

The teachers’ take? Easier said than done.

Marcos Gallegos, a physical education teacher at Capital High since 2003, said it is more difficult than ever to engage students via distance learning. There are times, he noted, when he can’t tell if his students are online because some use avatars instead of turning on cameras. Santa Fe Public Schools does not require students to keep their cameras engaged.

“I’m not able to have that random conversation with a kid,” Gallegos said. “There are times, in the middle of class, and a kid’s bummed out. You make a joke and they’re like, ‘Thanks, coach. I needed that.’

“We’re not able to have that [personal] interaction like we did before,” Gallegos added. “They’re learning online, but we are not helping them grow as human beings because we have to leave that to Mom and Dad and whoever else is in the household. And Mom and Dad are doing what they can to make the rent.”

Michelle Armijo, a third grade teacher at Piñon Elementary School who will be working in the hybrid model when students return later this month, said the past seven months have forced an almost constant change in her teaching style.

“I will be teaching both remote and in-person and I have no clue how to do that or how that is going to look for me or my students,” Armijo said. “I don’t sleep because I worry about my students having to go through yet another change.”

Jaclyn Gonzales, a kindergarten teacher at Nava Elementary, has the added task of creating lessons and information for students and parents in English and Spanish, which she said adds more responsibilities to 10- to 12-hour days. She said she is thankful that she grew up in a bilingual family, and she uses some of the district’s English Language Learning training to help keep communication with families sharp.

Gonzales added that her time on weekends is dedicated to planning the week ahead in her home office.

“I come from a military family and it’s always, ‘You adapt, you improvise and you overcome,’ ” Gonzales said. “I’ve always done that in my career.”

The struggle with the impersonal nature of teaching during COVID-19 extends beyond the student-teacher relationship. Teachers, like in other professions, now are rarely able to engage in face-to-face conversations with peers.

Gallegos said the PE team at Capital talks online every day to go over lesson plans and videos they think may be useful for students. Gallegos, also the school’s head wrestling coach, has a chat group on his cellphone with fellow coaches throughout the state to find out what they are doing to inspire students.

Gallegos admits he is almost at an end for innovative ideas.

“I see a lot of my teacher friends who are putting in hours to come up with creative lessons to reach students,” Gallegos said. “It’s just a different kind of teaching.”

Nevertheless, many teachers say they haven’t lost their zeal. Armijo said her colleagues are giving every ounce of effort to provide kids with a quality education.

“Teachers have a super strength and our work ethics and our hearts and our passion for this career is a recipe for success, no matter what is handed to us,” Armijo said.

Gallegos agreed but worried attrition could become a problem the longer the pandemic drags on.

“I think some of those teachers who might see this as a second career, they might be rethinking it,” he said. “But a lot of them do that after their first year anyway. It’s tough to be a teacher.”

Gonzales acknowledged she had second thoughts about her career when she had to learn how to teach remotely when this school year began. But once she figured out a routine, she didn’t find the job so overwhelming, she said, and she holds out hope the 2021-22 school year will see a sense of normalcy return.

“Hopefully, this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that never comes again, but you make it work,” Gonzales said. “I am doing what I love. I am working with the kids, seeing them every day and having fun. Learning and doing what we’re doing, it makes it worth it at the end of the day.”

Elementary school teachers point to Oct. 26, the first day Santa Fe Public Schools are scheduled start in-person learning in a hybrid model for elementary schools (middle and high schools will remain online), as a crucial time.

Families that elect to return their children to the classroom will see them spend two days on campus at school and three days learning from home. That’s if their schools have enough teachers and staff volunteer to return. The district has created a modified plan in which schools will have in-person instruction in some grades if they have an appropriate grade-level teacher agree to work in person.

About 165 elementary teachers and support staff members opted to work in the hybrid model, including Merritt, the kindergarten teacher at Amy Biehl. She said she understands the trepidation some of her peers have about returning to the classroom, but she has friends back home in Michigan who have done just that and have not had any problems.

That stokes her desire to return. “I think it’s going to be super exciting,” Merritt said. “I had a kiddo who was asking his mom to count down the days for him until he can go back in person.”

Merritt has spent every day over the past two weeks decorating her classroom in anticipation for her second “first day” of school. She’s placed posters up on walls and has spaces on bulletin boards inside and outside her room for students’ work.

But the signs of the pandemic are apparent — and transparent. A plexiglass shield surrounds her desk, and the rest of the classroom is designed to give students the 6 feet of space required in the school district’s reopening plan. There are hand sanitizer dispensers outside and inside the room.

“I know it’s not going to be like a usual class,” Merritt said. “But we all just want a positive experience for the kiddos.”

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