This remarkable school year is ending, but it will not be forgotten. The pandemic year began with our students and teachers fully remote from one another. It segued into a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person learning, and it ends now with full in-person learning available in all districts for families that were ready to send their children back.

Riding this roller coaster proved to be the most complex and demanding experience the New Mexico Public Education Department and school staff have ever faced.

Our PED team quickly trained thousands of educators in remote learning, distributed millions of units of personal protective equipment, and developed new school safety policies and protocols. Our administrators learned about air filtration, surveillance testing and contact tracing. Our teachers learned to juggle students online in pajamas with students in the flesh wearing masks. Our families learned to quickly shift from one schedule to another — and to check that children had masks when they went out the door. Our bus drivers learned to enforce alternate seating while navigating the streets. Our janitors learned new deep-cleaning protocols to eliminate surface germs. And all the while, our cafeteria workers churned out millions of meals to feed children who were in school buildings or still learning at home.

None of this was easy, but we all did our part and guided our students safely through the worst global crisis in a century. Now, as we celebrate our 2021 graduates and look forward to much overdue rest this summer, here are some key takeaways from a year we will never forget:

  • School cases decreased as the spring wore on. Teachers and staff were vaccinated. Students adapted to safety protocols. And we continue to see a steep decline in coronavirus cases in schools.
  • Most schools stayed open. Following the implementation of the COVID-19 watchlist in November, only three of New Mexico’s 840 individual school sites had to close due to COVID-19, and only 40 closed voluntarily.
  • We kept our educators safe. School staff were prioritized for the vaccine in March. To date, 57,734 New Mexicans who registered as educators have been fully vaccinated (a number that includes early childhood and post-secondary educators.) Additionally, surveillance testing in schools produced a teacher positivity rate that has averaged 0.16 percent since February.
  • We kept our children safe. No serious student cases have been reported since full reentry April 5. That is also the date when children ages 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine. By May 19, almost 24,000 16- to 18-year-olds had received at least one vaccine, including more than 5,500 who participated in Student Vaccination Week, which was May 3-8. On May 13, children 12 and older became eligible and, in less than two weeks, more than 17,000 in that age group have received at least one shot.
  • We kept our communities safe. The evidence is clear: Schools did not drive community spread. Our safety protocols, contact tracing and quarantine practices helped keep the school transmission rate at less than 0.5 percent.

Throughout April, my deputies and I visited more than 30 schools to offer our help with any school reentry issues. We met with principals and classroom teachers. We sat with students in classrooms and cafeterias and watched them at recess. It was a highlight of my year to witness and share in the joy of educators and students reunited again after this turbulent year.

We look forward to a 2021-22 school year that will feel both substantially more normal and that will also build on the successful innovations we adopted to adjust to the pandemic. We will welcome over 100,000 students back to in-person learning and will have robust online learning options that did not exist previously. We will continue to remember and mourn those we lost, and we will support our students and staff who need a safe and caring school community now more than ever.

COVID-19 remains with us and we must remain vigilant. But no matter what happens, New Mexico’s public schools have proved they have the experience and agility to meet students’ needs for both safety and academic progress.

Ryan Stewart is New Mexico’s Cabinet secretary for the Public Education Department.

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