Young children could be headed back to the classroom under a hybrid model of in-person and online classes if schools and counties meet strict safety criteria, state officials said during a news conference Thursday.
Students in kindergarten through fifth grade would be allowed to return to campus after Labor Day under plans that would have to be approved by the state Public Education Department. For that to happen, counties must demonstrate low rates of COVID-19 spread, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and health officials said.
So far, one-third of charter schools in the state and nearly half of public school districts have had plans approved, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García did not return a phone call Wednesday night, but the district’s plan is to continue the first nine weeks of the semester with online-only classes, said Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department.
The largest school district in the state, Albuquerque Public Schools, has decided to postpone any in-person learning until after the fall semester. Twenty-four school districts have elected to postpone any in-person learning for the first semester or a portion of it.
Stewart said the department is focused on maximizing “the amount of in-person learning we can do,” while ensuring “we have strong plans in place” that cut down on the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Lujan Grisham said the decision to exclude middle school and high school students from returning to classrooms hinged on the particular challenges of motivating young children to stay focused and engaged in classes that are online only.
“The magic about elementary-age kids and those schools is those are the kids that gain the most by being in person,” Lujan Grisham said.
But online classes still will be a key component, and public health officials do not want to treat the coming school year “as a lost year,” Stewart added. “We know that we have to be attending to the academic and social needs of the kids” despite the pandemic.
Anticipating that many schools might opt for a return to campus as teachers struggle to keep kids engaged online and as many families grapple with full-time child care while working, the Public Education Department has been busy reviewing reentry proposals from districts across the state.
The agency is providing special training for schools to deal with any COVID-19 outbreaks while minimizing impact to instruction. School districts have purchased more than 3.5 million masks and the state will issue another 700,000 in the next two weeks.
If cases are found within a classroom, state officials plan to quarantine that classroom for 14 days and switch back to remote learning in the meantime. Other classrooms would remain open in that scenario unless a student tested positive, Stewart said.
Officials would use the same procedure across several classrooms or wings of schools while keeping the rest of the school open if spread of the virus was isolated to particular areas. Stewart said the plan is to make closing the entire school a last resort so students “aren’t being yo-yoed back and forth.”
The shift follows months of online-only classes in K-12 schools across the state after public health officials attempted to contain the spread of the virus in the spring.
New Mexico is softening other restrictions, too. Lujan Grisham’s office announced Wednesday that indoor dining can resume at a limited capacity of 25 percent under a revised public health order that takes effect Saturday. Religious institutions also will be allowed to hold services at 40 percent capacity, an increase from 25 percent.
The eased restrictions will remain in effect at least through mid-September and come after the governor clamped down with stricter health orders following surging COVID-19 numbers in June and July as the state began allowing some business to reopen.
The state is meeting all but one of the criteria officials have laid out for considering softening public health orders. Most counties also are meeting criteria to allow hybrid models of in-person and online learning for K-5 students, state officials said Thursday.
Still, public health experts expect a potential resurgence of the virus in the winter based on what is known about flu modeling and other viruses, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said.
Scrase said influenza and other viruses — such as the common cold — peak in January and February. More people are indoors during the winter and that can lead to increased close contact, which can lead to viral spread. Concurrently, lower temperatures can compromise people’s immune systems.
“A logical conclusion [is] that this is going to be a rougher time in the winter,” Scrase said.