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Gov.: Online classes only until after Labor Day

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday gets ready to give her weekly update on COVID-19 in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Public schools across New Mexico will start the new school year without students in classrooms, after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday the state’s recent growth in COVID-19 cases makes it too dangerous for in-person learning.

The decision to limit schools to online learning – with a few exceptions – until at least after Labor Day will not affect such school districts as Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe that had already been planning to start the school year using such a model.

It was announced on the same day Lujan Grisham said that testing had revealed 343 new coronavirus cases around New Mexico – the state’s highest single-day total since the pandemic started in mid-March.

“The data that we have about what’s happening with COVID-19 in New Mexico is far too problematic to allow in-person learning,” the governor said during a Thursday news briefing that was broadcast online from the Roundhouse and watched by more than 19,000 viewers.

“I do think that parents, and I get it, are really frustrated,” the governor added, saying state agencies would be working to expand child-care services for parents who cannot work from home.

Several teachers union leaders praised the governor’s decision, which does not impact private schools, with Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein saying: “It was clear this is what we needed to do.”

However, the governor’s decision to delay in-person learning was criticized by state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, who said it would impose a financial burden on “thousands” of New Mexico parents.

It could also force a change of plans for many smaller school districts that had been planning to bring students back next month.

Arsenio Romero, superintendent of Deming Public Schools, said Thursday that school districts knew a remote start to the school year was a possibility.

“With the ever-changing information that comes every day, it has absolutely been difficult for all of us but we are going to continue to charge forward,” he said.

Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association, said the state’s 89 districts face an array of challenges as they try to start the school year – ranging from transportation to staff shortages.

Getting students to school safely, for example, may require operating buses at limited capacity to allow for social distancing. In some areas, Rounds said, it might take more buses to transport the same number of students.

“That money is not in anybody’s budget,” Rounds said in an interview. “Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to work out.”

Other challenges include addressing teachers who are at risk because of their age or medical condition and the availability of high-speed internet to accommodate distance learning.

“One thing’s for certain: One size does not fit all,” Rounds said.

‘A risk we cannot take’

Under the Lujan Grisham administration’s plan unveiled Thursday, New Mexico’s roughly 320,000 public school students could be gradually allowed to reenter classrooms based on age.

Depending on COVID-19 numbers over the next month or so, the state could start allowing elementary school students to return to school the week of Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. Middle- and high-school students would then be allowed to return at a later date.

The governor said that’s because studies have shown that younger students have the hardest time with distance learning.

“I’m using data, science and effective techniques to keep educators and students safe, and to meet their needs,” Lujan Grisham said.

The initial return would be a “hybrid model” in which students rotate between distance and in-person learning, though the governor said her goal is to eventually have students fully return to school.

School districts and charter schools would have to offer an online-only option for students, state officials said. And families could not be penalized for choosing that option.

In defending her decision to pause in-person learning, Lujan Grisham cited a recent increase in COVID-19 infections among New Mexicans in the 10-19 age range and alluded to the state’s large number of grandparents raising their grandchildren.

She said that dynamic in particular could put elderly caregivers at added risk of being exposed to the virus.

“This is a risk we cannot take,” Lujan Grisham said. “It’s immoral.”

In response to a question, the governor also said it’s possible that some parts of the state could be allowed to bring students back into classrooms sooner than others, though she did not provide specific details.

For now, the state will allow some exceptions for in-person work with students who have special needs and for small groups of children in kindergarten through third grade.

Meanwhile, at least four high schools around New Mexico have had at least one employee test positive for COVID-19 since the start of July, according to state Environment Department data.

Those high schools are: Hobbs High School, Carlsbad High School, Rio Rancho High School and Valencia High School in Los Lunas.

Positivity rate climbing

New Mexico’s average number of daily cases has more than doubled over the past month – from 143 to 289, based on a Journal analysis.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Thursday the uptick is largely due to social behavior by New Mexicans and visitors alike.

“More people are spending more time outside their homes with other people … and that is how COVID-19 spreads,” Scrase said.

In addition to the record number of new cases, Lujan Grisham also reported five additional deaths due to coronavirus, pushing the state’s death toll to 596 since the pandemic arrived.

The five deaths announced Thursday included adults ranging in age from their 40s to their 90s – all of whom had an underlying medical condition of some kind.

The state has now confirmed 18,163 cases of the disease out of 496,985 tests for a positivity rate of 3.7%. The rate has been climbing in recent days.

Lujan Grisham responded to the surge in cases this summer by ramping up enforcement of New Mexico’s face mask mandate, though some county sheriffs have flouted the requirement and refused to enforce it.

The governor also reimposed a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and directed out-of-state visitors to stay in quarantine for 14 days on arrival in New Mexico.

New Mexico’s current public health order expires July 30, though it’s expected to be extended by the Lujan Grisham administration with some possible changes.

Journal staff writer Shelby Perea contributed to this report.

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