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UNM, APS issue travel bans amid COVID-19

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Students at the University of New Mexico wait for a shuttle in September. The university and Albuquerque Public Schools are preparing to deal with COVID-19. Both entities have banned school-related travel for students and staff. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools and the University of New Mexico – two of the largest education institutions and employers in the state – are banning work-related travel and preparing digital learning options should schools close.

The moves come in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

The New Mexico of Department of Health reports there have been 69 tests for the virus but no confirmed cases as of Tuesday night.

The Associated Press reported more than 800 cases and at least 29 deaths nationwide as of Tuesday night.

Shelves in local stores are empty where hand sanitizer used to be, and shoppers are stockpiling water and toilet paper, even though no shortage of supplies was reported before the buying frenzy.

Travel restrictions

APS, which has more 80,000 students and about 12,000 employees, said Tuesday that it is suspending all district-sponsored staff and student travel outside the state as a precaution against COVID-19.

“We understand the decision will come as a disappointment to many, but it is the district’s responsibility to protect our school community as best we can from unnecessary risk,” officials wrote in an announcement to the community.

The suspension is in place until further notice. It’s unclear how many plans were disrupted by the decision.

Santa Fe Public Schools took the same precaution this week.

UNM has canceled official travel to states that have declared emergencies over the virus and several affected countries. While not restricting personal travel, the university is asking anyone who has traveled to those states and countries for personal reasons to report the trip to the university.

UNM is setting up a way for employees to report such travel through the school’s website.

Travelers may be asked to isolate themselves from campus for 14 days, according to a 22-page policy manual of sorts that provides guidance for the university’s response to the coronavirus. The document says it applies to all UNM locations, including main and branch campuses, and health sciences properties, until May 15.

“Our clinical facilities are prepared to receive a patient with COVID-19, and our Incident Command Teams on both sides of campus have been working behind the scenes for weeks discussing everything from sick leave to how we can accommodate classes remotely if needed,” UNM President Garnett Stokes told members of the campus community in an email Monday. “We also have experts in our research labs working tirelessly to help create a vaccine for this virus.”

Virtual classrooms

While there aren’t any confirmed cases in the state, APS said it is also working on its response for when the time comes.

Emergency messages are at the ready, and tech staff is working on contingency plans for virtual schooling should schools close.

“Our staff, including our Informational Technology Department in Curriculum and Instruction, has begun exploring district options to continue the educational work for students, if students are out on extended leave or if schools close,” Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder told the Board of Education recently.

Nancy Martira, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Public Education Department, said that technology for students is handled by the local districts and that the PED doesn’t have technological supports available such as extra computers if a family doesn’t have access to one.

“For schools that already have a digital learning infrastructure in place, this may be a good option for continuing instruction in the event that a school needs to close. If a school does not already have a digital or distance learning plan, it is unlikely that they will be able to get one up and running in a way that is inclusive for all students within the next few weeks,” she said.

The PED is working with the Department of Health to determine guidelines for when to close K-12 schools, the length of closures and what protocols need to be completed before they reopen.

Martira added that a conference call is scheduled for Thursday to give school leaders more information.

UNM is creating a contingency plan in case in-person classes have to be canceled at some point this year. Policy documents say an “instructional continuity plan” is being crafted for online courses so as not to affect graduation plans. The provost’s office will develop best practices for how to do that.

The document says that any public health directives, including those from the state Department of Health, will trump the UNM regulations.

Higher education institutions around the country are being disrupted because of the virus. Several colleges and universities this week, primarily in areas where emergencies have been declared in connection to the virus, are shifting to online instruction.

Planning

The university is thinking about how to support students who wouldn’t be able to get home.

“For institutes of higher learning … there are students who come from many different parts of the country and the globe, who can be living in student housing … and their ability to isolate and get home is going to be limited in a pandemic situation,” said Dr. David Pitcher, the executive physician at the UNM Health System and a member of the Emergency Operations Center, which was launched in response to the virus. “So we have to figure out how we are going to keep those students safe and protected in a pandemic situation … while they are essentially in the care of the university. In a pandemic situation, you can’t just send kids back to where they came from very easily.”

Elder said APS is completing a pandemic and influenza plan. Now, the district is trying to get ahead of logistics, such as seeking guidance from the state about student absences if kids stay home, working with Kirtland Air Force Base to see how schools would operate should the base close and creating a notification plan if an APS staff member or student is confirmed to have the virus.

School nurses, which every APS school has, although some are part time, have been trained to identify the symptoms.

Elder said the district is well-stocked with hand sanitizer and bleach, though schools are limited on how much can be ordered and the warehouse is being monitored.

APS is also researching options on providing meals to students who don’t go to school, because that’s the only guaranteed meal for some.

“The key truly is that everybody take these precautions very, very seriously, because this is really, truly life-changing in many ways,” APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy said.

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