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The ongoing question: Go to school or stay home longer?

In-person classes

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has instructed public schools to avoid traditional in-person classes through Labor Day, at least, which Rio Rancho Public Schools is planning to do.

“We want the children back,” Superintendent Sue Cleveland said at Monday’s school board meeting.

RRPS has made no final decision has been made on resuming 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.

Records published by the state Environment Department — which helps oversee rapid-response testing of employers — show schools statewide have reported about 50 positive tests among employees at more than 30 locations since Aug. 1, even though students haven’t returned. The scale of any shutdown triggered by a positive test will depend on how many people were potentially exposed and other factors.

A positive test by an employee is reported through the Occupational Health and Safety Bureau at the Environment Department, APS Interim Superintendent Scott Elder said, and a student who’s infected would be reported through the Department of Health.

RRPS has one COVID-19 case

Rio Rancho Public Schools main office.
(File photo/ Rio Rancho Observer)

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,” said Stewart, who recently paid a visit to Enchanted Hills Elementary.

Now that schools are starting back up, he said, the PED’s role is to maintain contact with schools and make sure processes are in place to contain the virus and reopen safely.

RRPS confirmed its COVID-19 positive case showed up Aug. 11 in a staff member at Enchanted Hills Elementary; that’s the lone positive test through Aug. 25.

“During the case confirmation time, we did not have any students on the school campus. At no point did students come into contact with this staff member in our facility,” noted Melissa Perez, RRPS communications manager. “In addition, all proper N.M. Department of Health procedures were followed and the staff member is/was quarantined appropriately.”

The unions’ takes

Rio Rancho School Employees Union President Billie Helean said union members are grateful for the collaborative work with district administration to ensure the health and safety of RRPS staff.

“The question posed to the bargaining unit was as follows,” Helean said, was, “When you only think about the health and safety of staff, students, and the community, do you want to open to hybrid learning after Labor Day, or delay opening until after winter break?

“65.5 percent of the bargaining unit indicated that they would like to remain virtual for the semester,” she reported. “We have also encouraged the bargaining unit to reach out to their school board members to share their personal thoughts, so that every voice can be heard.

“We are also grateful for the measured, careful response from the district after hearing about APS’s plans to delay reopening until after winter break,” she said, keeping in mind school districts must follow orders from the governor and state departments of health and public education.

“Our job as a union is to respond and advocate on behalf of RRPS staff, so we will be sending a survey to staff to better understand how we will proceed,” she told the Observer. “Our goal is always to support staff so that they can better support students and families.”

On Aug. 25, American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Stephanie Ly and Executive Vice President Kathy Chavez released a statement, saying: “We are deeply concerned about the numerous recent reports of positive COVID-19 cases and additional potential exposures at school sites and higher education institutions across New Mexico. To be clear, educators working in every capacity in our public education system want to be back in our classrooms and work sites; however, we should not jeopardize the health and safety of our educational community to do so.”

Ventilation concerns

As part of the RRPS COVID safety practices, the Facilities Department is completing a full occupancy flush of all ventilation systems three hours prior to the start of the school day and three hours after the end of the school day, each day, said Facilities Director Melanie Archibeque. This basically flushes out the air in the school and replaces it with fresh air from outside on systems that are capable of this function, or re-circulates it.

In addition, Facilities is changing filters in school ventilation systems three times a year, vs. the standard twice a year, and ensuring all systems are functioning to the best degree they can.

RRPS is working on scheduling work on the schools included in the recently approved bonds for HVAC improvements/replacements as well, Archibeque said.

“Merv” is a filter-rating system, with Merv 13 filters recommended as the best quality available, much like a high-end HEPA filter for a home air-conditioning system. In RRPS, only Cleveland High School is built to operate with Merv 13 filters.

“Because there is such a high demand for Merv 13 filters, RRPS has been unable to secure them at this time,” she said. “RRPS’s other school systems will either not accept Merv 13 filters easily or simply cannot function with them at all. The standard filter used in RRPS’s other schools is rated at a Merv 8, an industry standard.”

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