Following the closure last week of a public school in Washington state and one this week in Oregon for deep cleaning in response to confirmed cases of COVID-19, the New Mexico Public Education Department is taking steps to prepare schools for the potential arrival of the virus.

The department has been in daily talks with the state Department of Health and has been speaking with school nurses about preventive practices, spokeswoman Nancy Martira said.

It also was planning to send a letter Tuesday to every superintendent and charter school executive director in the state detailing federal guidelines for schools in communities with no known cases of the spreading strain of coronavirus.

So far, every school in the state falls in this category. New Mexico has not had a confirmed case of the disease.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools with no identified cases of COVID-19 urge staff and students to stay home when they’re sick and that officials monitor absentee rates.

Schools should report steep increases in absenteeism due to respiratory infections to health officials, the guidelines say.

Most of the guidelines focus on reminding students and staff to cover coughs and sneezes, frequently clean desks, doorknobs and other surfaces, and wash hands thoroughly and often.

The New Mexico Public Education Department and superintendents have the authority to close a school over coronavirus risks if a case is confirmed.

“The Department of Health has the authority to close any public place, including schools, when necessary for the protection of the public health,” Martira said in an email. The Cabinet secretaries of public education and health will work together to determine if a school should be closed.

“This decision may also be made at the District Level,” she added.

If a school is closed due to a coronavirus infection, the CDC recommends schools consider continuing classroom instruction via online lessons and find safe ways to distribute meals to eligible students.

Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district already has informed parents about preventive practices at home, and officials have been brainstorming ways to use laptop computers and other technology to continue classes remotely if a school must close.

She said the possibility of a pandemic also highlights a shortage of public health resources in New Mexico’s schools.

In the fall, García told the Legislative Education Study Committee the district needs 23 additional full-time nurses. Legislation proposed in 2019 would have required a full-time school nurse in every school with at least 250 students, but the measure died.

According to an analysis of the bill, 305 schools in New Mexico do not have a full-time registered nurse, and it would cost around $14.1 million annually to fill the gap.

According to the National Education Association, there are 780 students for every school nurse in New Mexico.

“I think for a lot of our children, the school nurse might be the first medical professional who would have a chance to notice something is wrong,” García said. “Having a licensed nurse in every school makes a lot of sense.”

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