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Superintendents air reopening hurdles

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As debates over school reopenings during the COVID-19 pandemic rage on, superintendents in New Mexico are calling local requirements a “moving target.”

Grievances were aired to the Legislative Education Study Committee the day after the state Public Education Department publicly released more coronavirus guidance for elementary schools.

For now, public schools in counties that meet virus condition requirements, among other criteria, can have elementary students on campus for a hybrid of in-person and online learning.

The districts also have to sign a safety plan checklist, ensuring adequate personal protective equipment, social-distancing plans and adherence to other requirements in a 21-page “toolkit” published on the PED’s website.

The toolkit shows the PED is requiring weekly surveillance testing of 5% of school staffers who are at schools – but surveillance testing is not required for in-person small groups that are convening during remote learning models, the document says.

“The intent of the 5% surveillance testing requirement is that all staff working in a school will be tested over the course of the year,” the guidance says.

The PED refused the Journal an interview, saying no one person at the department could answer the paper’s questions.

But Judy Robinson, a PED spokeswoman, wrote in an email that the average time to get a school staff member’s result for surveillance testing is less than 48 hours when the staffer is tested by the state Department of Health.

DOH local public health offices will provide testing at no cost to the staffers.

School employees also have to be tested if they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, in addition to quarantining.

And within four hours of notification of any school-related positive test, the state needs to hear about it, the toolkit says. Families and staff also have to be alerted by the school within hours.

Dennis Roch, New Mexico School Superintendents Association president and superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools, said the surveillance testing is a shift from previous state direction and questions remain, including what a district should do if a staff member refuses.

Overall, Roch told lawmakers reentry plans that were months in the making were uprooted by new requirements found in the toolkit, which he got earlier this month.

“Reentry is also a moving target – the constant uncertainty,” Roch said.

PED Secretary Ryan Stewart wrote in an emailed comment that the PED is in daily communication with education leaders.

“Health care experts are expanding our knowledge every day about the novel coronavirus, how it spreads and strategies to mitigate that spread, and that requires educators to be flexible and nimble. When we learn of new ways to improve safety, it is our responsibility to enact them to whatever extent possible,” his statement said.

Masks and capacity

During the Legislative Education Study Committee hearing, Roch pointed to changes in requirements on face masks and capacity limits.

For example, the original PED guidance allowed a wider range of face coverings, but Roch said “overnight” schools were tasked with providing cloth masks. “Districts spent nearly half a million dollars on that kind of PPE, and then right before Labor Day, right before districts were able to transition into the hybrid model, they suddenly said, ‘Oh, no, it has to be masks,'” Roch said.

According to the toolkit, schools have to provide two multi-layer cloth masks for each staff member and student, in addition to having disposable masks available. Medical masks and other PPE also have to be on hand, per the safety plan checklist.

That was an obstacle in Tularosa Municipal Schools. While the district is currently doing remote learning, Superintendent Brenda Vigil told lawmakers that reopening is “ever-changing.”

She said the district originally bought disposable masks and face shields “only to find out later that changed to needing cloth masks for students and staff.”

Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the toolkit says face shields in most instances aren’t a substitute for a mask and schools should pursue other options.

The PED is not reimbursing face shield costs, but the state has provided disposable masks and will be distributing 1.4 million cloth masks in the coming week, according to the department.

“There is currently not enough evidence to support the effectiveness of face shields for source control,” the toolkit says.

Roch also noted that originally the number of students allowed in a building was dictated by 6 feet of social distancing. Now, no more than 50% of registered students can be in a classroom at once, in addition to social distancing, per the latest PED guidance – something Roch called “inconsistent” and “frustrating.”

Air filtration

For a school to begin classes in hybrid model, schools and districts have to immediately assess ventilation systems and install the most effective filters that are compatible with their systems.

Superintendents told lawmakers that these requirements were a last-minute added cost, too. PED is not providing additional funding for filtration upgrades. Schools have to use their own money or federal dollars.

Robinson wrote in an email that no schools have been prohibited from opening because of air filtration.

“One school district (Moriarty-Edgewood) pushed their in-person start date back by a week in order to meet the requirements. All others have complied with the department’s requirements,” she wrote.

At Rio Rancho Public Schools – which has started the hybrid model – Superintendent Sue Cleveland said she understands that information changes and requirements have to be updated. Still, she said, the requirements and changes pile up on staff.

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