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Private schools forge ahead with in-person classes

Kristin Condit, left, and her daughter, Scarlett, 7, talk with Scarlett’s new kindergarten teacher, Rosella Sena, at the Santo Niño Regional Catholic School in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In late July, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that school districts would operate remotely through at least Sept. 7, saying state data regarding the coronavirus was “far too problematic to allow for in-person education.”

However, the state’s authority doesn’t extend directly to private schools, and several independent institutions in the state are forging ahead with opening their doors, required to operate under the same rules as a business.

While each private school the Journal spoke with has precautions in place, measures vary, including interpretations of a 25% occupancy limit in the current health order.

For Sunset Mesa School in Northeast Albuquerque, classes started Wednesday for roughly 300 preschool through fifth-grade students.

“That means five days, full time, all students here,” President of Sunset Mesa School Alan Mask said.

The maximum number of students that will be in a classroom at one time is 16, according to Mask. And, at most, staff meetings brought 20 people together, he added.

Mask said the school has increased the number of classes for social distancing and put student screening processes into place, in addition to extra cleaning and face-covering requirements.

David Garcia, custodian at the Santo Niño Regional Catholic School in Santa Fe, cleans and disinfects the bathrooms at the school Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We do have a lot simpler situation to make it safe than a big public school,” Mask said.

That’s the thought process at Hope Christian School as well, which resumed in-person classes on Monday. Head of School Terry Heisey said the school is better poised to react to the pandemic than a bigger district, adding that officials used the summer to plan.

Both Albuquerque private schools are operating based on their reading of a section in the public health order that targets private schools directly, stating they “shall operate with a maximum occupancy of 25% of any enclosed indoor space,” in addition to other guidance.

Sunset Mesa calculated occupancy based on campuswide learning spaces. At 25% capacity, the school can have about 260 students on its elementary school campus at one time, though it’s slated to have about 230.

“I see Walmart, and there’s people all over the place. It’s almost as full as Christmas. The parking lot is almost full. Twenty-five percent is actually a pretty liberal number it appears to me,” Mask said.

Hope Christian is using building capacity per the fire marshal.

New Mexico Department of Health spokesman David Morgan told the Journal that schools can’t exceed 25% capacity based on an entire building’s fire code.

Heisey said about 150 people gathered for all-staff meetings in the gym, which has a full occupancy of close to 1,000 people. He said the meeting was socially distanced and masks were worn.

Morgan thinks that falls within the health order as currently written, but it’s not without risk.

“Any time you get any number of people into a confined space, the potential of community spread of COVID-19 exists. Even with the best precautions, the potential still exists,” Morgan told the Journal.

Other precautions at Hope Christian include the addition of portable handwashing stations and Plexiglass barriers in high-contact areas, according to Heisey. Masks are required for the roughly 1,000 students and for staff, too. To allow social distancing, Heisey said some students will do school work remotely in such places as the gym or outside, and some elementary classes will be held at nearby churches.

Classrooms have anywhere from 10 to 18 students, depending on square footage.

“For the overall social, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing of our students, we feel it is very important to be on campus,” Heisey said.

Morgan said guidelines and oversight for private schools span across state agencies.

“The Department of Health can understand how this would lead a private school to read the public health order and, in some cases, draw their own conclusions, but to date law enforcement has not seen any violations of the standing orders at this time,” he said.

According to New Mexico State Police, both schools have received health order complaints, but the Department of Health did not give the Journal details on what those entailed.

In general, enforcement is largely reactionary to complaints because there isn’t enough manpower to proactively monitor compliance, according to Morgan.

Meanwhile, private schools in Santa Fe have given families the option of attending classes in person or online. At Santo Niño Regional Catholic School, nearly two-thirds of the school’s 137 students will attend in-person classes starting next week.

Desks in this fifth-grade class at the Santo Niño Regional Catholic School in Santa Fe are socially distanced to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The school will open at 25% of capacity Monday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Classrooms were fitted with various social distancing measures to keep students apart during the day. Santo Niño Principal Robin Chavez said many parents wanted in-person learning for students’ religious education.

Chavez said the school will follow the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s reopening guidelines, which include a requirement to wear masks unless students are 6 feet apart.

At Santa Fe Waldorf, a mix of in-person and online schooling will occur, with elementary school students attending class in person only a couple of times a week. High schoolers, on the other hand, will attend in-person classes five days a week.

As for the 25% capacity rule, Waldorf is approaching that classroom by classroom.

School administrator Gerson Perez said a majority of Waldorf’s parents, who pay between $14,000 and $22,000 in tuition and fees each year, responded in a survey that they preferred an in-person option for school.

Perez and Chavez said they believe their schools are following the guidelines in the public health order.

“We’re actually following what the state has recommended to do – the only thing is we’re doing that a little bit earlier,” Perez said.

Should an outbreak occur at a school, Morgan said the response, including shutting down some or all of a school, depends on how many cases there are, in what area of the school those people worked and their contact with others.

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