Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – More than 10 school districts around New Mexico – including the school system in the capital city – have announced plans in recent days to return to remote learning amid a surge of COVID-19 cases that has led to vexing staffing issues.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Larry Chavez announced Tuesday that schools in his district would return to remote learning next week.
The district would then go back to in-person learning a week later if “conditions improve,” which could leave open the possibility of an extended closure.
“We are pausing because, with so many staff – teachers, bus drivers, custodial staff and nutrition workers – quarantining, we cannot currently ensure the safe operation of schools,” Chavez said in a statement.
“Staffing shortages are placing extreme stress and additional duties on those who remain at work,” he added, saying the district had 361 new virus cases among students and staff last week, and expects the number of new infections to rise to 600 this week.
Public schools in several other New Mexico cities – including Lordsburg, Texico, Cuba, Pecos and Hagerman – have also announced plans in recent days to temporarily return to remote learning due to the wave of new cases, according to the state Public Education Department.
And more school districts could follow suit in the coming days.
The Albuquerque Public Schools, however, will stay the course and maintain in-person learning, said spokeswoman Monica Armenta.
“The pandemic continues to be completely unpredictable, but, for now, our goal is to remain with in-person learning, which we believe is the best option for kids, while we mitigate the risks for students and staff,” Armenta said.
The decision by some districts to return temporarily to remote learning comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico has hit record-high levels in recent days as the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus sweeps across the state.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases was at 3,172 new cases per day as of Tuesday after state health officials announced 2,932 new cases.
That’s higher than the previous average high of about 2,100 new cases per day set during a surge of COVID-19 infections in November 2020.
However, the state’s death rate due to the virus has remained below peak levels, likely due to the fact that 76.2% of New Mexico adults were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday – and 37.6% of adults had gotten a booster dose.
But there were 25 additional deaths related to COVID-19 reported by the state Department of Health Tuesday, bringing the state’s death toll to 6,045 residents.
New Mexico schools were closed to in-person learning by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration in March 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state, and they remained shuttered for the rest of the school year and, with some exceptions, for most of the following school year, too.
State education officials acknowledged that the closures posed challenges to students and working parents alike, with former PED Secretary Ryan Stewart describing in-person learning as the “gold standard.”
A report presented in September to a key legislative panel found public school students had lost the equivalent of between 10 and 60 days of instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The negative ripple effects are expected to affect younger, at-risk students the most in a state that was already found to have failed to provide a sufficient education for all students, especially Native Americans and English-language learners.
In a Tuesday memo to school superintendents around New Mexico, top state education officials said districts should implement enhanced protocols to reduce COVID-19 transmission in school settings.
They also said the state Department of Health has secured enough rapid antigen tests to conduct regular surveillance testing for school employees, and enough so that students who are deemed “close contacts” can test out of mandatory quarantine.
However, Chavez said the state’s testing provider, Premiere Medical Group, has struggled to meet demand. He said the testing shortage was also making it difficult to meet a state mandate that school employees undergo weekly COVID-19 testing if they are not fully vaccinated with a booster shot by Jan. 17.
“We cannot meet this testing mandate if the state cannot provide the tests, which places us in further jeopardy in our schools and school sites,” Chavez said.
While some health officials have said the omicron variant of COVID-19 could produce milder symptoms in many individuals, the latest surge of new cases has renewed concerns about New Mexico hospitals being stretched beyond capacity.
There were 584 individuals hospitalized around the state as of Tuesday – up from 493 people a week earlier.