Let the reentry phase begin.
But Santa Fe Public Schools won’t be one of the districts that will open their doors to students immediately.
On Thursday, state Education Secretary Ryan Stewart outlined the criteria that school districts and state-run charter schools must meet to reopen elementary schools as soon as next week under a hybrid learning model.
The department used the same model the New Mexico Department of Health developed to determine which counties can safely reopen nursing homes to visitors, and Stewart announced that all but 10 counties could begin opening classrooms.
The hybrid model involves evenly splitting instruction between in-person and online learning, with a day dedicated to cleaning and sanitizing the school.
All public schools in Northern New Mexico are eligible to open their campuses, but Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district remains committed to bringing students back to classes after the first nine weeks of the school year.
García said Stewart’s announcement is an encouraging sign that the state is moving in the right direction during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is a very good thing for students and families, and I hope that we will be joining them soon,” García said.
Stewart said the department focused on opening elementary schools first because younger students tend to have difficulty with the virtual learning model.
“We know those are often the students where the remote program can be the hardest, both as they learn to read, and also when we think about the issues around attention span and being in front of a computer all day,” Stewart said. “Those students in particular are the ones we wanted to prioritize getting back into the building.”
State Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said another factor was that studies have shown that elementary school students tend to go to school and return directly home, whereas middle and high school students are more social and will interact with friends and peers after school.
“All of that was built into the modeling, and our governor decided to choose the lowest-risk age group and lowest-risk configuration of the hybrid school model that Secretary Stewart has chosen,” Scrase said.
The criteria the Public Education Department used to determine whether counties could reopen involved a daily positivity test average of eight cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period as well as a test positivity rate under 5 percent.
Scrase said the average case rate was included to not penalize small counties that might encounter a high number of cases on one day that could skew its figures. Once a county is allowed to open its schools, Scrase said the same metrics could not be used to close them.
“We don’t want one case to take a county [out] of having their schools open,” Scrase said. “For example, if you only have 10,000 people in your county, and you have one case a day every day for 14 days, the calculation would go to 10 [per 100,000].”
Stewart also outlined what schools will need to do in the event of positive COVID-19 cases on their grounds. If it is limited to an individual class, students and staff in the classroom as well as close contacts will be tested, then quarantined for 14 days while participating in remote learning. The classroom also will be cleaned.
If infections are found within a wing of the school, that area will be closed for cleaning while all students, staff and close contacts in the affected rooms will be tested and quarantined for 14 days. If cases spread throughout the campus, it will be closed and students will return to remote learning.
“Flexibility is going to have to be the name of the game as we continue to fight the virus and we see surges and we see the virus’ conditions continue to fall as we have seen,” Stewart said.
Several questions to Stewart focused on which school districts will be the first to open their doors, but the secretary said the department did not have a list available. He said he expects to know which schools will do that after Friday once their final safety and support plans are approved.