Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Schools that are open can keep operating for now. But state Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart warned that closures are on the table in the future as the state battles a surge in COVID-19 cases.
If the community doesn’t take steps to stop the spread of the virus, spread rates may “get to the point where we would have to preemptively close down schools and go back into the remote learning model until we get those under control,” Stewart said during a virtual news conference Friday.
He urged the community to stay home, wear masks, wash their hands and keep a distance from others.
The state is keeping an eye on statewide gating criteria and counties’ new daily cases and test positivity rates when considering a return to remote learning in some counties. Experts are also looking at epidemiological models, PED spokeswoman Katherine Avery told the Journal.
Stewart said thresholds and a time frame for closure decisions haven’t been established yet.
Right now, it’s mostly elementary school students who are allowed back on some campuses part time. Avery said it’s still unknown when middle and high school students statewide could start attending in-person classes, a timeline that is on hold until the state sees improvement in coronavirus case data.
State health officials reported 819 new virus infections Friday.
Since schools started reopening with a mix of in-person and online classes on Sept. 8, there have been 264 cases of the novel coronavirus across 157 schools. Of those cases, 167 were staff and 97 were students.
The PED said it’s too soon to tell if school reentry is a factor in New Mexico’s coronavirus case spikes.
“We’re still looking at that data. It’s a little early to tell,” Avery said. “But we’re certainly sharing that information so that we can have the experts analyze it accordingly.”
Despite tightened restrictions on mass gatherings in the most recent public health order, Stewart said there are exemptions for public schools.
Schools that are currently doing hybrid learning, bringing in up to half the student body for in-person learning, can stay open and very small school districts that are allowed to operate at full student capacity can continue holding classes with a 5:1 ratio of students to staff – even if these schools are in counties that no longer meet health-data requirements.
In districts doing remote learning, small groups for pre-kindergarten through third grade and for students with disabilities are still OK.
Stewart added that districts that had already announced plans to shift from remote learning to hybrid – when their county and the state was meeting health targets – can proceed, too.
For instance, Avery said Los Alamos Public Schools, Alamogordo Public Schools and Grants-Cibola County Schools had hybrid reopening plans in the works that are cleared to move forward.