Red may not mean stop any longer for public school districts in New Mexico.
As the daily count of COVID-19 cases soared to another record high Friday, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart announced the state is developing less stringent coronavirus “threshold numbers” for reopening elementary school classrooms — or keeping them open.
That means districts’ plans to bring younger students back on campus won’t necessarily be stalled because their county is a “red” zone for what are known as gating criteria, such as test positivity and transmission rates for the virus and daily case numbers.
In a news conference Friday, Stewart said his department, the state Department of Health and the Governor’s Office will allow coronavirus-related numbers that are higher than the current standards to determine whether districts can open or if they will be required to shut down.
Districts that already have the go-ahead to reopen elementary schools on a hybrid model — which combines in-person learning on campus with remote learning from home — can continue to do so even if their counties no longer meet the current criteria, Stewart added.
“We are at the point where, if we don’t take all the actions that we can, if we don’t take all the measures to stop the spread of the virus, we do run the risk of getting to the point of where we would have to preemptively close schools and go back to the remote [learning] model,” he said.
Right now, counties that have daily average case counts of 8 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate below 5 percent are considered in the “green” zone and are able to open elementary classrooms. Counties that exceed both of those thresholds are considered “red” and cannot open schools.
Santa Fe County saw its status change from green to orange Wednesday, with a daily case average of 9.4 per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of 3.6 percent.
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district probably will continue with plans to reopen schools Oct. 26, but will meet with principals and administrative staff Tuesday to make a final decision.
The district will proceed with caution, knowing the environment could change at a moment’s notice, she said.
“You just have to be adaptable, and we are prepared for every scenario,” García said. “I still feel like our schools are safe places, but we just have to continue to be adaptable and flexible.”
García noted a school district can open classrooms for students in kindergarten through third grade, and special-education students at all grade levels, even if it is in a red county.
The caveat is that schools can only do so in a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio, she said.
The Governor’s Office said the upcoming changes in gating criteria for schools does not mean an overall shift when it comes to restrictions on business operations and activities.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, wrote in an email that the changes are specific to schools and school districts.
“Given the current extremely dangerous health conditions,” Sackett wrote, “the state and health experts have to evaluate all manner of in-person activities and where to restrict them to ensure the virus comes back into control and our health care system is not overwhelmed.”
Stewart said the Public Education Department will continue to allow school openings and impose closures on a county-by-county basis, but that could change depending on the spread of the coronavirus.
The state also could decide to shut down an individual school, he said, especially if rapid response teams deployed to investigate positive test results and contact-tracing efforts uncover a cluster of cases at a school. Stewart said the data so far show school-based cases have been limited to an individual or a classroom.
“We are able to keep the rest of the school open, even as that particular classroom and those close contacts have to self-isolate,” Stewart said.
Since the Public Education Department allowed traditional public schools and charter schools to reopen Sept. 8, it has reported 264 COVID-19 cases in 157 schools, with 157 infected staff members and 97 infected students.