This remarkable school year is over, but it will not be forgotten. The pandemic year began with our students and teachers fully remote from one another. It segued into a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person, and it ended with full in-person learning available in all districts for families that were ready to send their children back. This steady progress did not happen by accident but as a result of hard, evidence-based work.
Steering this ship through the pandemic storm proved to be the most complex and demanding experience the New Mexico Public Education Department and school staff have ever faced. Our PED team quickly trained thousands of educators in remote learning, distributed millions of units of PPE, and developed new school safety policies and protocols. Administrators learned about air filtration, surveillance testing and contact tracing. Teachers learned to juggle students online in pajamas with those in the classroom wearing masks. Families learned to shift quickly from one schedule to another – and to check that children had masks when they went out the door. Bus drivers learned to enforce alternate seating while navigating the streets. Janitors learned new deep-cleaning protocols. And all the while, cafeteria workers churned out millions of meals to feed children in school buildings and those still learning at home.
None of this was easy, but under the leadership of our governor and with support from the Department of Health and other state agencies, we guided our students safely through the worst global crisis in a century. Now, as we celebrate our 2021 graduates and enjoy much overdue summer rest, here are key takeaways from a year we will never forget:
• School cases decreased. As spring wore on, teachers and staff were vaccinated, and students adapted to safety protocols.
• Most schools stayed open. Following the implementation of the COVID-19 watchlist in November, only four of New Mexico’s 840 individual school sites had to close due to COVID-19, and only 40 closed voluntarily.
• We kept our educators safe. School staff were prioritized for the vaccine in March. To date, 59,687 New Mexicans who registered as educators have been fully vaccinated – a number that includes early childhood and post-secondary educators. Additionally, surveillance testing in schools produced a teacher positivity rate that averaged 0.16% since February.
• We kept our children safe. No serious student cases were reported after full reentry on April 5. That is also the date when children ages 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine. By mid-May, almost 24,000 16- to 18-year-olds had received at least one vaccine, including more than 5,500 who participated in Student Vaccination Week, which was May 3-8. On May 13, children 12 and older became eligible and, by mid-June, more nearly 27,000 in the 12-15 age group had received at least one shot.
• We kept our communities safe. The evidence is clear: Schools did not drive community spread. Our safety protocols, contact tracing and quarantine practices helped keep the school transmission rate at less than 0.5%.
Throughout April and into May, my deputies and I visited more than 30 schools to offer our help with any school reentry issues. We met with principals and classroom teachers. We sat with students in classrooms and cafeterias and watched them at recess. It was a highlight of my year to witness and share in the joy of educators and students reunited again after this turbulent year.
We look forward to a 2021-22 school year that will feel both substantially more normal and that will also build on the successful innovations we adopted to adjust to the pandemic. We will welcome over 100,000 students back to in-person learning and will have robust online learning options that did not exist previously. We will continue to remember and mourn those we lost, and we will support our students and staff who need a safe and caring school community now more than ever.
COVID-19 remains with us, and we must remain vigilant. But no matter what happens, New Mexico’s public schools have proved they have the experience and agility to meet students’ needs for both safety and academic progress.