Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
This time last year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was ordering schools to close to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. On Monday, her administration said all public schools in New Mexico will be expected to open at full capacity for in-person learning by April 5.
This is the first time “full reentry” has been on the table for K-12 schools across the state since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Mexico. The state Public Education Department defines full reentry as all students having the option to return to school for in-person learning each school day.
“All schools across the state do need to be open by April 5,” Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said during a virtual news conference. “That gives about a month for planning.”
Remote learning remains an option for students. And high-risk staff exemptions are available until two weeks after a school employee is fully vaccinated or a vaccine is made available to them. All teachers are now eligible to receive the vaccine.
Stewart pointed to data tracking, school building improvements, robust safety practices and wider access for educators to get the vaccine as reasons the state is making this move now.
He said school district leaders were told about the reopening plans Monday morning.
“The time has come to get back to the gold-standard in education, which is students and teachers together in classrooms,” Stewart said in a statement. “Our message to New Mexico public schools is that you can and should move as quickly as possible to get everyone who wants it back for in-person learning.”
Schools will be expected to follow such safety protocols as mask-wearing. Stewart said social distancing should be practiced “to the greatest extent possible.”
Schools have to continue providing meals for in-person and at-home learners. Stewart said lunch and snack breaks should be taken outside “to the greatest extent possible.”
Surveillance testing will continue, though the number of school staff who will need to get tested for the coronavirus will depend on the county. Staffers who are fully vaccinated do not have to do surveillance testing, according to the PED.
Schools can also offer sports, band and choir, among other activities, with some COVID restrictions.
Albuquerque Public Schools, which has largely kept students learning remotely this year, said in a news release Monday that it’s working on updating its plans to get students back in the classroom to present to the Board of Education.
Small group in-person learning, which was approved just last month, will continue on APS campuses in the meantime. The district had been considering starting a hybrid of in-person and online schooling when Bernalillo County met certain COVID-19 spread thresholds.
Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said the state’s announcement was a surprise.
“We understand that all of the educators will get vaccinated, but we are surprised and will try to get more information so we can figure out how to do this safely,” she said.
Fellow union leader Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association New Mexico, said that staffers are excited to get back into the classroom, but that she wants to make sure everyone who wants to be is vaccinated.
“I don’t have any problem with the decision, but the devil is in the details,” she said.
Debates about reopening the state’s K-12 schools have dominated the 2020-21 school year. At the center of the debate was getting teachers and other school staffers vaccinated.
Monday’s school reopening announcement came the same day the state said all school staffers will be eligible to be vaccinated in the next three weeks.
Dr. Tracie Collins, state Department of Health secretary, said the state’s plan, as per a federal directive, is to give all educators, staff and early childhood professionals a first dose of the vaccine by the end of March.
Stewart said the decision to make educators and staff eligible is due in part to a “shift in federal priorities” and the “substantial progress” made in vaccinating the current eligible groups, which include those ages 75 and older, and those with chronic health conditions.
President Joe Biden announced last week that teachers nationwide should be prioritized for vaccination, also announcing a new federal program to give teachers nationwide at least a first dose of the vaccine by the end of March.
“We’re not getting extra doses to respond to this federal directive, but we’re certainly trying to maintain a priority of health care personnel, 75-plus and chronic conditions,” Collins said. “So any of those folks who have existing appointments, they will keep those appointments. It’s just that, moving forward, we are prioritizing educators.”
She said 53,905 educators have registered on the state’s portal. She also said that 22,944 have received one shot and that 11,616 have been fully vaccinated.
“We’ve got 20,981 (educators and staff) scheduled to receive their first shot this month,” Collins said. The state began contacting teachers and others in the new eligible category late last week to get them vaccinated.
She urged educators and staffers who have not yet registered on the state’s vaccination website to do so. The state is receiving more than 80,000 doses each week, she said.
New Mexico’s schools stayed closed for the end of the 2019-20 academic year, remaining remote until after Labor Day. All schools were allowed to launch a hybrid of in-person and online learning starting Feb. 8, which some elementaries had been doing already.
“We are phasing out what we’ve been calling ‘hybrid’ learning, although there will continue to be a fully remote option for those families who choose it,” Stewart said.
Journal Staff Writer Rick Nathanson contributed to this report.