Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
With growing concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 public schools across New Mexico will shut down for three weeks starting Monday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Public Education Department and the state Department of Health announced the temporary closure late Thursday.
Superintendents and school leaders were informed of the decision in a call with officials from the governor’s administration on Thursday night.
Students and staff are still expected to go to school Friday, though the state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, doesn’t have classes due to previously scheduled parent-teacher conferences. Superintendent Raquel Reedy said on Thursday that those conferences would happen virtually or over the phone.
As of now, students are scheduled to go back to school April 6.
The decision to close came abruptly.
Just moments before education leaders found out schools would close, Reedy was telling reporters that the district would keep its doors open.
“Schools are safe havens for our students. They provide critical, social and community services, including regular meals, counseling, health care, and before and after childcare,” Reedy had said before the closure announcement from the Governor’s Office.
It was a similar situation at Las Cruces Public Schools, which had also held a news conference just about an hour and a half before the closure decision, reiterating at that time that schools would remain open.
“We knew it was a possibility, but it was a little surprising that it was later in the day and the decision wasn’t made sooner,” LCPS spokeswoman Kelly Jameson said. “We understand that the fluid situation means decisions are being made at a moment’s notice and with the best interests of all concerned.”
Both APS and LCPS are working on a way to get students meals during the closures.
Making sure kids were fed was top of mind for Kristi Samuelson, a special education teacher at Washington Middle School.
She said many of the school’s students are dependent on the food they get at school.
“Our parents are blue-collar workers. They are working at restaurants, and Walmart and shoe stores – those aren’t closing. They will still have to work and if they don’t work, how will they eat?” Samuelson said.
She said there are still unknowns, such as whether teachers will have to work in the summer or if schools will have to make up the days.
Monica Armenta, an APS spokeswoman, said the district is working out logistics, including food options for students, and finalizing expectations for staff beyond Friday.
The district is still in the information-gathering phase, Armenta said.
“To my knowledge, this is unprecedented,” she added.
Shellmarie Harris, APS Executive Director of Educational Technology, said the district has online resources for students to access supplemental learning to continue their education at home.
Armenta said APS stands behind the state’s decision.
“We agree with the PED and Department of Health that the threat is greater than the other hardships we will face as a district as result of this decision,” Armenta said.
The Las Cruces Public Schools spokeswoman said the district is planning a deep clean of facilities and, after Friday, staff won’t have access to school buildings.
Veronica Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said her district has been preparing for this.
“We’ve been working on pandemic prevention, preparation, response and recovery for a couple of weeks. We have plans in place already to deal with this for continuation of operation in our district,” she said. “I understand why they are doing it. I can see where some people might wonder, based on the number of cases, but I think the strategy is to contain infection and spread.”
Should schools turn to online classes, Garcia said most students have access to iPads or laptops and about 90% have access to the internet. The district also plans to provide Wi-Fi hotspots if needed.
The call to close schools comes a day after Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency after the first cases of COVID-19 surfaced in New Mexico. As of Thursday night, New Mexico had six presumptive positive tests for the new coronavirus.
Zachery Sedlak, a local parent with two kids, including a 7-year-old first-grader at Los Ranchos Elementary School, was “very surprised” about the move to close schools. He said the measures taken against coronavirus in the state have ramped up faster than he expected.
In a statement, state Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the move was a proactive measure to help curb any potential community spread of the virus.
“We have seen other states take this measure after they have experienced community spread of this virus. New Mexico is going to be proactive and do everything we can to prevent the potential spread of the virus. I have been in communication with all of our superintendents about this proactive step, and we are all going to work together to address this public health challenge,” Stewart said in the statement.
Lansing Freeman, a La Cueva High School teacher, said the shutdown didn’t come as a shock as he’s been tracking the COVID-19 developments internationally and nationally.
“My colleagues and I have been talking about this all week,” he said.
He was told he’d get more information from his school Friday.
More details about the statewide closures are also expected Friday when the governor and other state officials will hold a news conference.
“We are advising the public of this forthcoming announcement tonight so that parents and students can prepare for this upcoming change and begin to make arrangements,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Thursday. “We will be informing the public of additional measures that the state will be taking to ease the burden on families and educators, and ensure that children continue to be fed and cared for.”
Journal staff writers Matthew Reisen and Elise Kaplan contributed to this report