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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico families were scrambling Friday to prepare for the three-week public school shutdown that will upend everyday life starting Monday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham moved quickly to address one major concern – feeding thousands of children for whom school lunch is their main meal.
The Democratic governor said Friday that school cafeterias and health centers will remain open, since many families rely on those resources and roughly 70% of New Mexico students get free or reduced-price lunch under a federally funded program.
“I will make decisions that protect the entire state,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference. “We have a long way to go but we’re going to do this together.”
She also acknowledged the challenges many parents face in seeking day care, and urged employers to allow employees with school-age children to work remotely when possible.
The three-week closure for all public preschools and K-12 schools will start Monday, and students are tentatively scheduled to go back to school April 6. However, the shutdown could be extended.
The University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University on Friday announced plans to extend their spring breaks in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus, as the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increased to 10 as of Friday after four new positive test results.
Overall, 60 New Mexico school districts will have a spring break during the closure, according to the Public Education Department. The agency is asking districts with spring breaks planned after that period to consider moving up the breaks.
The abrupt decision to close schools took some school districts by surprise, but Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said Friday that school leaders had been raising concerns to the state about not having enough staff and that kids who were staying home would simply fall behind if schools remained in session, among other concerns.
“One of the things we want to do is make sure we’re not waiting until there is wide community spread” of coronavirus, Stewart told the Journal.
He also said the state is not requiring the schools to make up the days and will waive the statutorily required number of instructional hours for this year. Stewart said the decision was made partly so school wouldn’t overlap with extended-learning and summer school programs.
The PED is also pushing back state testing, although specific details were not announced.
School employees will be paid as normal, Stewart said, and some teachers will be asked to help out in different capacities during the shutdown.
Those who are essential to school-based health centers or food services are still expected to work unless they are sick, the governor said. She also said there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases in schools.
New Mexico was one of the first states to order all schools closed. Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, Michigan and Illinois were among other states that had taken similar steps by Friday afternoon.
Several major metropolitan school districts nationwide have also closed schools.
New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said Friday that school closures in previous disease outbreaks in different parts of the world have lowered infection rates.
But he said the policy would be effective only if New Mexicans take social distancing seriously and heed advice not to hold large public gatherings.
Meals for students
Lujan Grisham said that the state hopes to be able to provide meals to kids as early as Monday – the first day of the closure but that the state is still working on logistics.
The intent is to offer the meals at the schools, but there are potential alternatives, such as deliveries from first responders and possibly even the New Mexico National Guard, the governor said.
“We’ve been working with the federal government around the waiver process for being able to extend our meal programs across the state,” Stewart said. “So we are going to be keeping cafeterias open and organizing grab-and-go meal programs and also working with other state agencies to work on distribution of meals to kids who aren’t able to come into the schools.”
Albuquerque Public Schools released its meal pickup plan Friday. Under the plan, there will be 89 sites across the city for students under age 18 to get meals, starting Monday.
Families – with a student present – can pick up food at any of the 89 schools but will not be allowed to enter the buildings. A list of the sites is on aps.edu.
Infant formula will be available at New Futures Alternative High School, a high school for pregnant and parenting students, for New Futures students only.
Santa Fe Public Schools announced a meal pickup plan for school breakfasts and lunches at seven different locations.
The PED is also working with the Department of Health to keep school-based health centers open and encouraging districts that have online learning resources to make those available on a voluntary basis.
Stewart said the PED is working with districts to assess schools’ and districts’ digital infrastructure.
He cautioned against scenarios in which only some students in a district have access to e-learning, which would perpetuate opportunity gaps.
APS has said online resources will be available for students to continue learning at home. Santa Fe Public Schools sent a letter to parents saying students will be sent home with laptops or iPads to access online educational services.
Child care options
Lujan Grisham acknowledged the closures will make things difficult for parents and suggested that school buildings could be used for temporary child care facilities. She did not give details, and her administration was meeting Friday afternoon with child care providers to discuss options.
Although public prekindergarten programs will also be closed, the state is encouraging private preschools and other child care centers to remain open, said Matt Bieber, a spokesman for the state Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
Options include seeking federal waivers to expedite background checks and licensing requirements for child care workers, along with suspending mandatory child-to-adult ratios.
“We recognize that child care is utterly essential for low-income workers” and other New Mexicans, he said. “We really can’t do without it.”
But Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said some child care centers were struggling to find enough cleaning and food supplies to stay open. Some preschools could also face workforce problems, with employees deciding to stay home, she said.
“This is a lot more complicated than it seems,” said Dow, former director of a Sierra County early childhood program.
Joy Losey, senior director of Covenant Schools, which runs a private preschool in Albuquerque and one in Rio Rancho, said protocols have been set up to ensure public safety, including prohibiting sick children from attending and allowing employees to stay home if they don’t want to work.
She said some parents have said that they plan to keep their kids home temporarily but that others have been urging the school to stay open.
“We have desperate parents that need to work or they won’t be able to pay their bills,” Losey told the Journal.
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s largest early childhood home visiting program, CHI St. Joseph’s Children, said it will not be conducting in-person visits but will continue doing remote visits via phone calls and videoconferencing.
Journal staff writers Edmundo Carrillo and Ryan Boetel contributed to this report.