In New Mexico, rules on COVID school closures vary

SANTA FE – State education officials largely ceded control over if and when schools need to shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and they relaxed rules that would have had schools close their doors this semester.

Until last month, schools had to send students into remote learning if there were four positive COVID-19 tests on campus within two weeks.

Now there’s no set number or percentage of COVID-19 cases that trigger a school to shut down, according to statements from the education and health departments.

Looser health rules are possible in part because of widespread teacher vaccinations. Around half of minors who are eligible for the vaccine, ages 12-17, have also gotten their shots.

Elementary students aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, and a handful are ending up in the hospital. But their illness is less severe. New Mexico Department of Health officials said this week that four children have died from COVID-19 during the entire pandemic.

As of Thursday, there were 10 schools with four cases and one with five. Four of the schools are in Hobbs, in eastern New Mexico. Thanks to the relaxed rules, they can stay open.

“The longer we stay open, the more confidence that creates in parents by saying I’m not going to have this yo-yo effect of going back and forth, back and forth,” Superintendent Gene Strickland said.

Stone Elementary, in Hobbs, has five cases listed. But the numbers can be deceptive: They are all members of the same family, Strickland said. And a small number of tests is more significant in a smaller school than a larger one.

A more important metric going forward will be the percentage of staff and students who test positive. Stone’s positive rate is 2%, according to a dashboard updated by the school daily.

Other schools do not provide as much public information, and it’s difficult to track school closures because the Public Education Department no longer releases a weekly list.

Siembra Leadership High School shut down all in-person classes at the charter school last month because of an outbreak, according to an email sent to parents on Aug. 25. The closure came as the number of in-person students fell from 130 to around 35 because of positive tests and close-contact quarantines. Representatives for the school did not immediately respond to phone calls and messages left Friday.

The Public Education Department is requiring school districts to write and release plans describing what they will do if the infection rate in a school building goes up, including a plan for hitting 5%.

It would be up to the Department of Health “to determine when an outbreak was of sufficient concern to require a school building to close,” Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said. “We are allowing districts a much greater deal of self determination in creating local plans that can both address rising cases and keep students and staff safe and in school.”

Strickland says Hobbs’ plan has been submitted, but not yet approved. He says if a school hits 3% or 5% infection rate, the district would enact other measures first, like ending group gatherings, and returning to daily student symptom screenings.

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