The state’s Public Education Department secretary sounded a warning bell Monday that all school districts could return to fully remote learning if the spread rate of COVID-19 cases continues at its current pace.
During a media conference call, Ryan Stewart said students and staff at New Mexico’s schools have had a reported 2,260 cases of the coronavirus since September, with a positivity rate of 11.86 percent from surveillance testing of staff members at school districts in the hybrid model.
Stewart said those numbers mean the next two weeks are critical for districts that remain in the hybrid learning model, which allows students two days per week of in-person instruction.
“If we don’t start to trend in the right direction, if we don’t start to get these case numbers down, get our positivity rate down, then we will be in a situation where we’ll have no choice but to move all schools into remote learning,” Stewart said.
Some districts did not wait to suspend their hybrid models: Santa Fe, Rio Rancho, Farmington and Alamogordo have announced a return to remote learning. Santa Fe Public Schools will end in-person instruction Friday.
Meanwhile, Stewart also unveiled a series of rapid-response protocols at individual schools when a teacher or student tests positive for the virus that are designed to help slow the COVID-19 spread. Schools with two or more rapid responses during a 14-day period will be placed on a watch list, but still can operate in a hybrid model. A school that receives four or more instances of a response team appearing during the same time frame will be required to return to distance learning and the campus will be shut down.
In the event of a shutdown, Stewart said the school cannot reopen until the county in which it is located meets the gating criteria of eight new cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate under 5 percent.
Currently, only Harding and Catron counties — two of New Mexico’s smallest in terms of population — meet that criteria.
Stewart emphasized the importance of students and staff members wearing masks, obeying school reopening guidelines and remaining socially distant.
“We know how hard that is,” Stewart said.
Meanwhile, any extracurricular activities should come to a stop, Stewart said. That includes athletic workouts for high school teams that were still allowed even as schools remained in remote learning.
The New Mexico Activities Association, which governs prep athletics and activities in the state, has postponed athletic events until January.
Larry Chavez, the assistant superintendent of athletics/activities and school support for Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district’s teams are scheduled to conduct workouts through this week before stopping, but that may change, given Stewart’s comments.
Stewart said more than 12,000 out of 330,000 public school students have not been accounted for by school districts this year. He said his department is working with several state agencies to help find those students and reengage them in their respective schools.
Those efforts found 550 students, and the education department referred them to its Engage New Mexico program, which helps students recover lost classroom time through academic coaches and other resources to get them back on track.
The program, which began in the spring when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the state, initially targeted middle and high school students, but expanded to elementary children in the fall.
“Our hope is that we get as many students as we can who need that support connected with that support,” Stewart said. “We still have more room within our scope to reach students.”