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Districts to decide when schools reopen

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Middle and high school students could soon be back in the classroom, which for most will be the first time since schools were shuttered last March.

In-person learning could be expanded to include more elementary schools and the older grades starting on Feb. 8, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday.

But allowing students back in a limited capacity – under three options available to districts and charter schools – will be up to local school boards and charter leaders.

And families may also opt for fully remote learning even if their school is opening.

David Peercy, the president of Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education, said reopening schools will be a hard decision to make. He said meeting all the guidelines and working out logistics is a heavy lift – especially in the less than two weeks until Feb. 8, adding that the date was a surprise.

State Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart said Tuesday was the first time the start date for more in-person learning was announced, but he said school leaders were told to anticipate such an expansion.

To expand in-person learning, districts are required by PED to meet safety measures such as testing staff for the coronavirus.

For those in a red county like APS, 25% of in-person staff will have to be tested weekly. Schools in yellow and green counties, which only applies to Harding and Union right now, will be tasked with testing 12.5% of staff each week.

“We were on a 10% (testing requirement) and having somewhat difficulty doing that, so there are a lot of things that we’re going to need to make sure we can do,” Peercy said.

APS has been preparing for kids to return to campus, he said, but the district needs to nail down how many families will send their children back for in-person learning and look into what else needs to be done to meet requirements.

“For example, you have Atrisco Heritage with 2,600 kids, is 50% going to work with 1,300 kids back in school? Probably not. How do we do distancing?” he said.

He said the board will revisit the school reentry topic at an upcoming meeting. APS students have largely been learning remotely the entire school year, with in-person learning being conducted for small groups of students with disabilities.

Stewart said more students are getting the green light to go to school after the “safest possible set of conditions to return” have been created.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase pointed to modeling on reopening schools under a hybrid system and other data, along with vaccination developments, as reassurances for expanding in-person learning.

“We are at a good place in the state and also clearly in a good place in the schools,” Scrase said.

PED said in a press release that schools have been able to avoid “school-based outbreaks” for the most part.

“No New Mexico schools have reached the rapid response closure threshold of four rapid responses in a 14-day period. The current test positivity rate for school staff is 2.2%,” the release said.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia said it’ll be at least a couple of weeks before the district will make an announcement regarding in-person learning, as district officials gauge the concerns of teachers, staff and families.

She said she wants to see how the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine might impact some staff members’ willingness to return to the classroom.

Stewart said those educators and school staff members who are 75 and older can get the vaccine prior to Feb. 8. And school nurses and school staff who work with “medically fragile” students are able to sign up for vaccines as health care workers, which moves them up on the list.

Other educators and school employees would be vaccinated in a later sub group, along with essential workers.

Santa Fe briefly had hybrid classes for some elementary students last semester, but the district later announced classes would remain online for the time being.

Various labor unions said they support the return of in-person learning at New Mexico schools – if the proper safety precautions are implemented.

“If there are places where they don’t have safety precautions in place, we are very clear the school should not reopen,” said Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico.

National Education Association New Mexico also plans to work closely with PED to make sure safety practices are being followed.

Those practices will bring big changes to the day-to-day operations of schools.

Requirements will include mask wearing, social distancing and separate groups of students.

Upgrades to air filtration and adherence to positive-case reporting protocols will also be required as it has in the past. And officials will be visiting schools to sign off on safety.

“It’s critical as we’re operating schools safely and looking all of our children, all of our families, educators and staff in the eye to say we’ve created a safe environment for you, that we have a clear set of COVID-safe practices that everyone is adhering to and that are strictly enforced,” Stewart said.

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