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Editorial: Barring a virus surge, governor must declare schools open in fall

We’ve had some positive news in New Mexico on the COVID front in recent weeks. Cases, deaths and hospitalizations, while persistent, seem to have plateaued. Vaccinations are proceeding at a good clip. Many of the more vulnerable already have received shots and efforts are turning to the reluctant or hard to reach.

Against this backdrop here, and progress nationally, it’s not too early for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to send a clear message on an incredibly important topic: Barring an unexpected and significant surge in COVID-19 cases, New Mexico K-12 schools will be open in August for the fall semester. Fully open. Monday through Friday, with attendance required for in-person learning. No asking teachers to juggle in-person and online. And no two-week shutdowns reverting to remote learning if four students in a high school of more than a thousand test positive in a two-week period. For those who aren’t ready, there are the e-academies and home schooling.

Opening our schools is critical. Despite the best efforts by school districts and teachers, far too many New Mexico students received subpar education in the last year. At APS alone, an estimated 4,000 students are simply “gone.”

Second, while millions of Americans have returned to work, mothers of young children lag far behind. Many schools and daycare centers have not returned to normal operations. When they are open for a few hours a day, or a few days a week, or on alternating weeks, it’s very difficult for parents to return to full-time jobs. And parenting still falls disproportionately on women. The New York Times, which reported this story earlier this week, does not understate when it says that whether schools return to near-normal this fall may well be the “biggest issue of gender equality in 2021.”

By announcing now that schools will reopen, the governor is giving parents and teachers time to prepare – and seek out alternatives if that is what they choose.

“It’s not enough to sort-of open,” Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University told the Times. “We are going to need to figure how to make it possible to open normally.” The evidence weighs heavily that schools can safely do so.

Teachers and school personnel have the opportunity to get vaccinated. There is a good chance that, by August, children 12 and over will, too. Pfizer is seeking emergency authorization now for this group and may have permission to use it on even younger children in the fall.

That potential availability is good news, but no reason to wait. The level of protection for teachers and other school workers is high, and, as the Times reports, this coronavirus rarely harms children. For them, the death rate resembles that of a normal flu, while symptoms, such as “long Covid,” are rare. Does it present a small health risk to children? Yes, but no greater than others that society has faced. The Times notes a child who is driven to school “almost certainly faces a bigger risk from that car trip than from the virus.”

Under the current system, 59 New Mexico schools were on the state “watchlist” earlier this week for two or more COVID Rapid Responses over 14 days – even if cases were contracted off campus. An abundance of caution? At minimum. But we know more now and, going forward, the state needs to consider the science, along with the well-being of students and working parents.

Having the governor send the important message that in-person school is back this fall will provide hope and optimism for students and parents, and set a clear expectation for education officials and school districts.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.