Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Randee Ensor, 68, hasn’t hugged her son since March 13.
She’s been very cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic, staying home as much as possible.
Her son gets her groceries and when the cabin fever is too much she takes an aimless drive, ultimately coming straight home.
But her anxiety and safety concerns have been mounting as she looks ahead to returning to work in the fall.
She’s been a teacher at Eldorado High School for 27 years and a substitute teacher before that, bringing her total time in the classroom to about four decades. Still, Ensor has never faced a back-to-school like the one quickly approaching.
As August nears, state health and education officials are grappling with how to protect and accommodate New Mexico teachers in a COVID-19 world with mounting pressure to get kids back into the classroom to combat learning loss.
And the state faces all of that with 25% of the teacher workforce 55 years or older – a percentage well above the national average.
In fact, that’s the highest percentage for this age category nationwide, according to a report that put New Mexico at the top of a ranking for vulnerable teachers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of adults becoming severely ill from COVID-19 – which could mean hospitalization, intensive care, use of a ventilator or even death – increases with age.
Nearly 80% of New Mexico’s COVID-19-related deaths have been among adults 60 and older, according to the state Department of Health.
“I’m scared,” Ensor told the Journal about getting back into the classroom. “There’s so many feelings inside and so many issues to address.”
Ensor has asthma, which could also increase her risk. In general, certain underlying medical conditions increase the risk for severe illness from the novel coronavirus.
Districts across the state are preparing to start the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid of in-person and at-home learning. And the state Public Education Department released guidance on what that could look like on June 23. The details were released two days before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham paused a plan to reopen more of New Mexico’s economy as coronavirus cases surge throughout the state.
Ensor said she loves teaching and doesn’t want to have to retire, but if she doesn’t feel safe teaching in-person, it’s on the table.
The longtime teacher anticipates her class load will be upward of 160 students, though it’s unclear right now what daily interaction will look like under a hybrid schedule. Her preference is to teach fully online.
The state Department of Health and Public Education Department declined interviews with the Journal but released a joint statement.
“The age of our education workforce in New Mexico is very much on the minds of our public education and health departments in what is now the COVID-19 era, especially given that their average age is among the highest in the country. The issue has been carefully considered and addressed directly in PED’s newly released School Reentry Guidance,” the statement says in part.
A Legislative Finance Committee report flagged this as a challenge when reopening schools, citing American Enterprise Institute research that found New Mexico and Maine were at the top of the most vulnerable teachers list. And 34% of New Mexico’s principals are considered vulnerable based on age, which is also above the national average.
“No matter the age, all of us will be vulnerable to COVID-19 until a reliable vaccine can be created and mass produced, particularly older members of our workforce as well as those with underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes. The best practices for our educators will largely be no different from that of anyone else, but conditions will be very different depending on the age of the students,” the state’s statement read.
The state didn’t give additional advice for teachers considered vulnerable but emphasized the importance of masks, hand-washing and social distancing.
Ellen Bernstein, president of Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said she’s concerned about teachers coming back to school.
“I gotta be honest I’m concerned for everyone. My primary concern is that we are able to have school safely,” she said.
In Albuquerque Public Schools, about 400 or about 5.5% of educators, which includes teachers, are above the age of 65, according to data tracked by the union.
Opening schools during a pandemic comes with increased logistical challenges and costs, Bernstein noted. She said PED releasing its reentry guidance at the end of June doesn’t give enough time for implementation by August, adding that a short-term agreement that addresses COVID-19 specific issues will need to be created.
PED’s reentry plan says districts should create processes to accommodate high-risk staff and give opportunities to teach from home.
“Schools will need to take into consideration that some teachers and staff will fall into high-risk categories because of their age or other health risks. Educators who are considered to be in a high-risk group as defined by CDC guidelines may need to teach from home. All districts and schools should have a process in place to identify these educators,” the plan states.
But Bernstein said this, among other requirements like personal protective equipment, is no easy feat. It will be up to the districts to define, pay for and implement what this guidance looks like on the school level and it will result in union negotiations.
David Finn, a 68-year-old teacher at Volcano Vista High School, is ready to go back into the classroom.
“We’re full of uncertainties … I feel that if we follow the state guidelines and we supply our faculty with the proper protection we should be OK,” he said.
But he knows it’s a risk.
“If I contract COVID-19, it could kill me so I’m not cavalier about it at all,” he said.
He’s pushing for robust training and supplies to ensure a successful and safe 2020-21 school year.
Finn is preparing to take extra precautions in the classroom, footing the bill for extra disinfecting wipes to make sure kids are sanitizing in between classes.
Coming home from work, he plans on taking the same steps he did when traveling earlier this year: hand sanitizing, removing and setting aside his work clothing, wiping down his briefcase and taking a shower to protect himself and his 65-year-old wife.
With August quickly approaching, Finn noted there’s a host of details to iron out to bring teachers and students safely back to the classroom. Bernstein added that she’s had hundreds of comments and questions from teachers on PED’s reentry plan.
The unknowns are at the core of Ensor’s fear when she pictures going back to Eldorado.
“I’m a tough old bird. I don’t want to be perceived as whiny about this but there are just so many factors involved. How do you keep people safe?” Ensor said.