Capital High School junior Max Quintana said he contracted COVID-19 and had a family member die of the illness.
Like most high schoolers in the state, he has been learning remotely since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March. He misses sports and the social interaction of learning on campus, he said, but he’s also worried about the risks of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s new plan, announced Tuesday, to allow school districts statewide to open classrooms to all students Feb. 8.
Quintana said he won’t return to campus until he has access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Local school leaders and teachers share his concern and say classrooms in Santa Fe won’t open until all educators who want the vaccine can get it.
“Our educators will return to the classroom when they’re vaccinated,” said Grace Mayer, a teacher at Milagro Middle School and president of the National Education Association-Santa Fe. “We’ve waited so long. We should not give up on ensuring that level of safety when we’re so close.”
The announcement by Lujan Grisham and the Public Education Department that schools can reopen using a hybrid model — combining in-person classes and remote learning from home — came less than a week after the Department of Health began canceling some vaccination clinics for teachers. The agency said it was refocusing its vaccine distribution efforts on higher-priority people: residents 75 and older and those 16 and older with a medical condition that makes them vulnerable to a severe illness.
Previously, a muddled message about who was eligible for the vaccine led to many teachers and other essential workers receiving shots out of turn. It’s now unclear when the rest of the state’s teachers will be able to get vaccinated.
Most students will have to wait even longer than teachers.
Quintana fears an outbreak could occur if classrooms open at Capital High.
“Yeah, I miss my friends, and yeah, I want to get back to school,” he said, “but I don’t think sitting in class for eight hours is worth the risk, even it means going back to track practice.”
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said a survey showed 99 percent of teachers in the district want the vaccine, and she has been working with the Department of Health and private providers to find a way to get doses for them.
She noted the implementation of a hybrid model would come close to spring break, when the state could see another spike in coronavirus cases, as it did during the holiday season.
“Our priority is the vaccine,” García said. “If there’s an outbreak and a school has to close again, all that can be very disruptive.”
Under the reopening plan, which would allow public middle and high schools to open for the first time since March, only 50 percent of students could be on campus at one time.
The Public Education Department said schools would have to follow strict safety protocols. Those in counties with a “red” status, meaning virus caseloads and test positivity rates remain higher than the state’s targeted threshold, would have to conduct virus testing of 25 percent of staff each week.
Districts in counties with a “yellow” or “green” status would have to test 12.5 percent of staff members.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a news conference Tuesday districts choosing to launch a hybrid-learning model must pass site inspections conducted by the Public Education Department with the help of local fire marshals.
“It’s a chance for school leaders to show all of the efforts that have taken place to make sure our schools are safe,” he said.
Stewart noted several school workers remain eligible for vaccinations: teachers who are 75 and older, school nurses and staff members who work with medically fragile students.
Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said a significant number of educators also could have high-risk medical conditions making them eligible for the vaccine. He cited a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 49.9 percent of Americans have a COVID-19 risk factor.
“Preexisting conditions and risk factors for COVID are fairly prevalent in our population,” Scrase said.
Department of Health spokesman Matt Bieber said more than 500,000 of the state’s 2.2 million residents are in the high-risk category.
Despite the plan to reopen public schools, he said the state will not alter its vaccination distribution schedule.
Leaders of the state’s largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the National Education Association-New Mexico, blasted the agency in a news release Tuesday morning for its decision to cancel a recent teacher vaccination clinic for workers in Rio Rancho Public Schools.
“The last minute cancellation of distribution of vaccines to Rio Rancho Public School Employees is a cruel and short-sighted decision by the New Mexico Department of Health,” the statement said.
NEA-New Mexico later issued a statement lauding the governor’s decision to allow districts to reopen classrooms, though it urged school leaders to ensure teachers receive “priority in the vaccination rollout.”
Without a clear timeline for teacher vaccinations, reopening plans vary among districts.
Some are trying to ensure teachers get their shots, regardless of the state’s priority list.
Martin Madrid, superintendent of Santa Rosa Consolidated Schools, said a local hospital had enough doses for his entire staff of around 160.
His schools could start hybrid instruction for all students in February, he said.
Superintendent Chris Gutierrez of the West Las Vegas School District said most of his teachers were turned away from a recent vaccination event in San Miguel County, and he wasn’t sure the district could launch hybrid learning next month.
State Rep. G. Andrés Romero, a history teacher at Atrisco Heritage High School in Albuquerque, said he worried that switching from remote learning to a hybrid model could be an added stress on teachers and students who already strained. He urged caution to districts considering the option.
“Another recalibration in the middle of the school year might be tough,” Romero said.
“Remember, switching to a hybrid model is not a 1 to 1 from what we’ve been doing. There would be some new elements to figure out,” he said. “Not to mention the safety concerns for everyone involved. I hope school districts take that message into account.”