Most public education students in New Mexico will not return to school rooms until Sept. 8 at the earliest, according to a Thursday announcement by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state officials.
The decision outlined by New Mexico Public Education Department guidelines came on a day when the state had its highest daily case count ever.
There were 343 new COVID-19 positive cases reported in New Mexico, bringing the total count to 18,163. Five new deaths also were reported, for a total of 596 statewide.
“Pause” on school start
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While public school districts can begin to offer online or remote learning in August, the new orders will not allow hybrid models or classroom learning in public schools until after Labor Day, which is Sept. 7.
Exceptions have been made for special education students, as well as kindergartners through third graders. Whenever public school districts are ready, special education students can meet one-on-one or in small groups with instructors, while K-3 students can meet in settings where there are no more than five students per instructor.
The PED guidelines pertain to only public schools and charters, not to private schools. Higher education institutions also will work with the Higher Education Department, but will likely be restricted in most cases to online or remote learning for the fall.
Lujan Grisham also said that all public school districts must accommodate any student wanting to utilize online-learning only.
According to current plans, classroom public school instruction would be phased in for other students beginning Sept. 8, beginning with elementary students, and then moving to middle school and then high school students.
Lujan Grisham said the exceptions were made for special needs students and preschool and young elementary students because they need learning support to succeed and because health risks are lower when student-to-educator ratios are low.
She said it is also based on science and data showing what has worked in other states and the relative low risk evidenced in early childhood settings in New Mexico that have been caring for children while parents work. The Early Childhood Education and Care Department will be working to expand child care and summer meal programs.
“Why would we have any exceptions? Small, so they can be socially distanced. We don’t bring back all the educators at once,” Lujan Grisham said. “We focus on the hardest-hit and the most difficult to adequately serve students, and we do that in groups that already meet the groups in the public health order.”
Asked why decisions were not left up to school district leaders or regional officials, Lujan Grisham and Dr. David Scrase, secretary of Human Services, said that mobility among counties is too prevalent to allow region-by-region or county-by-county rules.
“If everyone would sign an affidavit indicating that they would not leave their county, then it would be easier to pull things like that off,” said Scrase. “But we are a very mobile society, even in a lockdown.”
Lujan Grisham also said that 80% of educators and 40% of parents have indicated that they don’t think it is safe under current conditions to return to classrooms.
Six new cases in county
Chaves County had six new cases reported on Thursday, bringing the county total to 235. Of that total, 64 are reported as recovered.
No new deaths have occurred here, so the total in the county remains at four. There have been 8,551 tests administered in the county since March.
Statewide, a large number of the 343 new COVID-19 cases occurred in Bernalillo County. It had 126 new cases. Other counties with double-digit increases were Doña Ana (31), Lea County (33), McKinley County (26) and San Juan County (21).
The five deaths occurred among people who were described as having underlying conditions and had been hospitalized or in skilled care facilities. They include women in their 80s and 90s from Bernalillo County, a man in his 60s from Doña Ana County, a woman in her 40s from Lea County and a woman in her 60s from McKinley County.
Of the 18,163 total COVID-19 cases in the state, 7,056 are reported as recovered. There are now 167 people in New Mexico hospitals. So far, 496,985 COVID-19 tests have been administered.
Scrase said that the state is meeting four of its six gating criteria used to determine when it is safe to reopen businesses, schools or other entities. What is still outside acceptable ranges are two criteria having to do with contact tracing and resolution: how long it takes from learning of a positive test to ensuring that the COVID-19 patient self-isolates and how long it takes to ensure that the contacts of the infected person are in quarantine.
But he also said that the single-most important data point that he examines is the 7-day average of daily COVID-19 cases.
According to information he shared Thursday, the number has increased 123% during the past five weeks, from an average of 115 on June 7 to 256 now. The 7-day average has increased in every region of the state, except the northwest region.
“The virus has not changed,” Scrase said. “It is just us that are making those curves. Reopening really cannot go forward without really all of us taking the actions that, like wearing masks, socially distancing and staying home unless necessary. We all have to do that to make this work. I want my child at home to go back to school, I really do, but in order for that to happen we can’t be at our highest ever number of cases and we can’t afford the results that our neighbors are having.”
The Thursday news conference also included discussions about the Rapid Response teams that respond to employers’ businesses upon the report of a positive COVID-19 test and information about unemployment benefits.
Bill McCamley, Secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions, said that unemployment benefit recipients in the state could experience a gap in funding soon and might not be receiving the $600 a week pandemic premium within a week or so.
He said Congress is working now on legislation, and he is not sure what will be decided regarding unemployment benefits. He said benefit recipients should be sure to certify their situation each week at www.newmexico.gov/i-need-assistance. He said, if they do so, they likely would be eligible for back-pay once Congress restores funding or the premium.
To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.