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Coronavirus cases surfacing at NM schools

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Coronavirus cases have surfaced at dozens of school and education sites in New Mexico this month, even without the return of traditional in-person classes, according to state records.

They’ve popped up across the state, from Albuquerque to Artesia, triggering the temporary closure of school buildings, contact tracing and deep cleaning.

Records published by the state Environment Department – which helps oversee rapid-response testing of employers – show schools have reported about 50 positive tests among employees at more than 30 locations since Aug. 1.

For school leaders, it’s been a preview of the challenges they might face when in-person classes resume.

Dennis Roch, superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools, said his district heard from three state agencies – the departments of Health, Environment and Public Education – after an employee tested positive earlier this month. Each agency, he said, responded at its own pace, some taking days to follow up.

“There’s three separate agencies I’m reporting to, answering a lot of the same kinds of questions from each,” Roch said in an interview. “It raises a question about how rapid is the response under this ‘rapid response,’ and is the response even coordinated among different agencies?”

State officials, in turn, say their multiagency approach provides a thorough response when schools report a COVID-19 infection.

In an interview, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the Department of Health initiates “robust case investigation and support and contact tracing work,” with follow up from the Public Education Department.

“We try to see it as kind of one integrated system, where we each have a role,” Stewart said.

Now that schools are starting back up, he said, thePED’s role is to maintain contact with schools and make sure processes are in place to contain the virus and reopen safely. When an employee tests positive, Stewart said, the department helps the school make decisions about closure, cleaning and reopening.

“Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that if we find a case,” Stewart said, “we are able to contain it and isolate it. And so the top thing that we have to do right now is keep getting case rates down so that we don’t see outbreaks in schools, and we don’t have to have schools open and then close and then reopen.”

Numbers dropping

The number of new coronavirus cases detected in New Mexico each day has plunged over the past month – from a peak average of 330 cases a day in the week that ended July 29 to 138 a day in the week that ended Monday, according to a Journal analysis.

The state’s goal is to keep its seven-day rolling average of cases to 168 or below.

New Mexico, in fact, complies with all of its reopening criteria – a set of standards on how quickly the disease is spreading, testing capacity, the supply of medical equipment and hospital beds, and other factors.

The state reported just 76 more coronavirus cases Monday and two deaths, continuing the sharp downward trend in new infections over the past month.

The two fatalities pushed the statewide death toll to 747 since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March.

The victims reported Monday were both men – one in his 80s from Lea County, the other in his 60s from McKinley County. The younger man had an underlying health condition, a risk factor for the disease.

In-person classes

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has instructed public schools to avoid traditional in-person classes through Labor Day, at least. Health officials have discussed allowing elementary school students to return to campus a few days a week after that.

But no final decision has been made on when, or how, to resume in-person learning.

Some districts – including Albuquerque and Santa Fe public schools – have already said they plan to continue distance learning beyond Sept. 8, even if the state permits some in-person classes.

State Rep. Christine Trujillo, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said she is worried about whether schools will have enough staff and supplies to adequately clean classrooms or replace employees who must enter quarantine.

Parents “are struggling right now with day care and support systems,” said Trujillo, a retired teacher. “For them to have (school) off and on again anytime a kid or employee gets sick is just overwhelmingly problematic.”

Roch, the Logan superintendent and a former Republican state legislator from eastern New Mexico, is more confident about the possibility of safely returning to in-person learning. Keeping students in smaller groups and preventing the mixing of large populations, he said, can limit the opportunity for spread of the disease.

The scale of any shutdown triggered by a positive test will depend on how many people were potentially exposed and other factors.

“I think schools are going to be pretty nimble in those responses – because we have to,” Roch said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep it safe.”

Cases at APS

As with other employers, coronavirus cases are hitting school sites throughout New Mexico. In Bernalillo County, for example, Albuquerque Public Schools has reported at least 10 positive tests among employees to the state this month, including cases at West Mesa High, Hawthorne Elementary and Hayes Middle schools.

Acting APS Superintendent Scott Elder told lawmakers in July that districts needed better coordination from state agencies. A positive test by an employee is reported through the Occupational Health and Safety Bureau at the Environment Department, he said, and a student who’s infected would be reported through the Department of Health.

“The two agencies operate under different guidelines,” Elder told lawmakers, “and they react differently.”

An APS spokeswoman said Monday that the state has made some adjustments since July to address Elder’s concerns.

At least one school employee who tested positive has been reported in Santa Fe, Socorro, Roswell, Rio Rancho, Clovis and Hobbs, among other communities.

Artesia Superintendent J.R. Null said his district closed a building Thursday through the weekend for deep cleaning after a positive test.

“We’ve been fortunate that the New Mexico Department of Health epidemiologists have been responsive,” he said, “and they’ve been helpful in providing us with guidance.”

Roch said Logan Municipal Schools is ready to meet the challenges of in-person learning. But it’s critical, he said, that the Public Education Department have a standard plan communicated to districts and charter schools for responding to virus cases.

“Every school leader is going to face this exact situation in the near future,” Roch said.

Roch may know better than most. He contracted the virus earlier this month – probably through exposure to the first employee who tested positive – and entered self-isolation.

Roch said he made a full recovery.

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