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State enlists LANL to analyze school opening options

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are helping New Mexico analyze four scenarios for reopening schools – one of which would involve keeping teenagers home so younger students could spread out in high schools.

In briefings to lawmakers and reporters, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Friday that the calculations are incredibly complex and require massive computing power at the laboratory to determine how each option would affect the spread of COVID-19.

He expects the analysis to be finalized next week but said a “hybrid” approach – where groups of students rotate between in-person and virtual learning – may be a better option than, say, closing high schools.

The complex analysis must take into account, Scrase said, that children don’t seem to contract and spread the disease the way adults do – perhaps because of a difference in receptors in their noses.

But teachers and school staff would still be at risk from in-person learning, he said, and there’s evidence that their parents will be more mobile if kids aren’t at home, which contributes to spread of the disease.

“When you reopen schools,” Scrase said in a media briefing, “you don’t see a big increase in cases in kids – what you see is a lot of teachers getting infected.”

Scientists at Los Alamos are studying four main scenarios – distance learning, a hybrid in which students are physically present about half the time, the closing of high schools but in-person learning for others, and full-time in-person school for everyone, with stringent mask requirements.

Scrase’s comment that parent mobility increases when children are in school triggered intense pushback.

In addition to Scrase’s comments in legislative and media briefings Friday, KRQE-TV reported him saying that parents contribute to the spread of COVID-19 when their kids go back to school because they’re more likely to go to the store, return to work and do other activities.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said Friday that keeping schools closed will damage New Mexico’s efforts to boost academic achievement at the same time the state faces a lawsuit over the quality of its education system.

“If the only reason we’re keeping kids at home is so we can control their parents, that’s not going to meet the constitutional muster,” he said.

Responding to a question in a legislative hearing, Scrase said Friday that the increased mobility of parents is simply one factor among many that has to be analyzed in the reopening of schools. He didn’t describe it as an overriding factor or chief concern.

Keeping children at home for remote learning, Scrase said, creates its own challenges that also have to be considered.

Daily average up

A critical factor in the successful reopening of schools, Scrase said, is simply what’s happening in the broader community. And the news on that front isn’t good.

New Mexico reported 319 new coronavirus cases Friday, pushing the state’s daily average to a record high, according to a Journal analysis.

The state has averaged about 273 new cases of COVID-19 a day over the last week, the largest total since the pandemic arrived in March. The daily average has shot up 48% since July 1 and more than doubled since a month ago.

In other countries, Scrase said, their success at reopening schools generally matched how they were doing overall. The seven-day average of new cases, he said, is a quick way to measure New Mexico’s progress.

“We need to see this level out,” he said of the growth.

But there are some positive signs, Scrase said, such as data showing New Mexicans’ travel outside the home seems to be leveling off after recent increases.

The spread rate of COVID-19 is also inching downward, according to modeling by Presbyterian Healthcare and state officials. The most recent estimate is that the transmission rate is about 1.09, meaning each person who’s infected spreads the disease to 1.09 other people.

It’s an improvement from the 1.2 spread rate the state has seen in recent weeks.

The state’s goal – to proceed with a gradual reopening – is to get the rate below 1.05.

Death rate decline

New Mexico is already meeting its goals on the number of tests conducted – more than 6,700 a day this week – and for intensive care beds available and the supply of personal protective equipment.

Death rates are also on the decline, Scrase said, and a smaller percentage of coronavirus patients are requiring a ventilator to help them breathe.

Better treatments for the virus might be a factor, he said. Younger adults also make up an increasing percentage of coronavirus infections.

It’s also possible that deaths will grow as the disease progresses in people who have only just contracted it, officials say.

Older adults, in any case, are most at risk.

New Mexico reported three more virus deaths Friday – adults ranging in age from their 40s to their 80s, all with underlying medical conditions of some kind.

The state reported 166 virus patients in New Mexico hospitals Friday, a decline of four people since the day before.

Journal staff writer Shelby Perea contributed to this article.

 


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