Class is soon to be back session. New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced Monday all public and charter schools in the state can fully reopen campuses April 5. The state is phasing out hybrid-learning models, which combine in-person and remote learning, in favor of full-time classroom instruction.
It will be the first time New Mexico schools return to a traditional instruction model since the start of the pandemic a year ago.
The news came as the state Department of Health announced all educators and school staff — from early childhood professionals to K-12 personnel — will have the opportunity to receive at least their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month under a Biden administration initiative designed to accelerate school openings.
Still, some local school leaders expressed concerns about the plan to fully reopen campuses. Stewart’s announcement also could complicate matters for Santa Fe Public Schools, which came to an agreement last week with the National Education Association-Santa Fe that requires teachers and staff members without special accommodations to return to campus after they are fully vaccinated.
Grace Mayer, an art teacher at Milagro Middle School and NEA-Santa Fe president, said the union made the agreement with the district in good faith and doesn’t intend to back out of it.
“We will try to maintain our local control and enforce the [memorandum of understanding] that gives us a little bit more time to vaccinate everybody fully,” Mayer said.
The New Mexico School Boards Association released a statement Monday saying its members felt blindsided by Stewart’s announcement. Association President Olivia Calabaza said she was concerned the state did not seek input from school boards.
However, Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce called the full reopening of schools “long overdue.”
“It’s been a devastating experience, and students have fallen behind academically and socially,” Pearce said in a statement. “It will be hard to tell whether the Governor’s action will have a long-lasting impact on our state.”
Beginning this week, child care and school workers outside the Albuquerque area who have registered for the vaccine will be offered a dose, the Department of Health said in a news release. Next week, the inoculation program will move into the Albuquerque area, and March 22 it will be offered to educators who have newly registered or have not received a shot for some other reason.
In the meantime, the state will continue focusing its distribution efforts on health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, people 75 and older and those 16 and over who have medical conditions putting them at risk of a severe infection, Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said in the statement.
She added health providers have so far vaccinated more than 15,000 educators.
Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, who appeared in a news conference with Stewart on Monday, said data shows vaccines are having a significant effect on bringing down the number of coronavirus cases. Recent modeling from Los Alamos National Laboratory showed vaccines were a driving force in reducing the seven-day average daily case count to 260 as of Monday, he said, compared with 781 on Jan. 29.
The state reported just 126 new cases Monday.
“We’re really seeing a substantial effect of the vaccine now,” Scrase said.
Stewart said students can choose to remain in remote learning, but districts will have to iron out the logistics of teaching students both in the classroom and online.
He emphasized all schools should be fully open by April 5 to students whose families choose to return to campus.
“Our message to New Mexico public schools today is that you now can and should move as quickly as you can to get every student who wants in-person learning back into your classrooms or in-person learning every school day,” Stewart said.
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said she was excited about the prospect of fully reopening schools but needed to review the Public Education Department’s updated guidelines.
García cited a concern about classroom space, especially if the district has to continue ensuring 6 feet of social distancing between all students and staff. She also noted the district’s agreement with the union.
The state “says everyone can come back, but then you have to follow COVID-safe practices and you have to follow your collective bargaining agreement,” García said. “The details are in the fine print. It makes for a nice headline, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Stewart said the decision to fully reopen schools was due in part to the new vaccination process for teachers and staff. He also said data accumulated over time suggests schools are safe to reopen. Surveillance testing conducted since Sept. 8 shows only 1 percent of teachers and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, he said, and the positivity rate since Feb. 8, when students at all grade levels were allowed to return to the classroom in a hybrid model, was 0.3 percent.
The Public Education Department reported 52,200 of New Mexico’s 330,000 public and charter school students are now learning on campus for at least two days a week, while learning remotely for the other three days. Out of more than 50,000 teachers and support staff members, the department said 17,000 have returned to campus.
“We know that districts have been preparing for this for a long time,” Stewart said. “We’ve done site visits at over two-thirds of the schools across the state that have put in all the COVID-safe practices and the indoor air quality measures, and we’ll continue to finalize the rest in the next couple of weeks.”