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NMMI’s enforcement of COVID-19 plan questioned

In response to questions about public health order compliance, New Mexico Military Institute says strict COVID-19 protocols are in place and cadets are accountable for following them. (Submitted Photo)

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Grizzle defends protocols, ‘policing’ of cadets

The New Mexico Military Institute needs to do a better job of enforcing its COVID-19 prevention policies and procedures, according to Acting Secretary of Higher Education Stephanie Rodriquez in her second letter about public health order compliance at the school.

In response, Maj. Gen. Jerry Grizzle, NMMI president and superintendent, continues to defend the school’s prevention procedures, its reopening plan and its efforts to ensure that cadets follow the established rules.

Grizzle said it can be difficult to make sure that all 800 or so cadets comply with all rules at all times, but he added that cadets are made aware of their need to obey, are “policed” to ensure appropriate conduct and can be disciplined or dismissed if not following rules.

“We have strict protocols, and the other innuendo in the letter that we are not doing anything about them is just not true,” he said. “I will not allow a single cadet not following the rules to put everything we have worked for at risk.”

Rodriquez said in her Sept. 30 letter — a follow-up letter to an initial Sept. 3 letter from her and Ricky Serna at the Higher Education Department (HED), and to Grizzle’s subsequent response on Sept. 10 — that photos and information received about cadet activities have shown that safety precautions are not always being followed.

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“The state is appreciative of New Mexico Military Institute’s (NMMI) thorough review and response to the letter of concern you received,” Rodriquez wrote. “However, in discussions with the New Mexico Department of Health and upon review of non-compliance reports, we note a gap in the enforcement of NMMI’s ‘Return to Campus Plan and Protocols.’ This letter expresses our concerns.”

She mentions some specific transgressions, including photos of cadets in the dining hall or at other campus events where they are huddling in groups, with some not wearing face coverings. She also said there are reports that cadets are gathering in each others’ rooms while disregarding rules about masks and social distancing.

Rodriquez’s letter also details an alleged incident discovered through contact tracing. The letter states that a cadet who was not wearing a face covering met for a meal with a visitor who later tested positive for COVID-19. But the Institute stated in an Oct. 2 letter that the cadet disputes those facts, saying he or she was wearing a mask and kept appropriate social distance. NMMI also said the cadet was quarantined until a negative COVID-19 test result was returned.

The question about public health order compliance at the Institute began with the Sept. 3 letter from HED. It conveyed a much sterner tone than the second letter, notifying the Institute of its “legal obligation to comply with all public health and executive orders” and stating that the Institute should “cease and desist” from any actions contrary to the orders.

The initial letter had outlined four specific allegations of public health violations. Those included providing in-class instruction to high school students, although state orders did not allow that; not offering remote learning opportunities; utilizing double-occupancy in barrack rooms; and allowing greater than 25% occupancy in the dining hall.

Grizzle responded to that letter on Sept. 10 with six pages of details about the Institute’s reopening plan, its communications with HED and New Mexico Department of Health officials prior to the start of the semester, its COVID-19 testing procedures and its daily health monitoring practices. It also noted that, as a military school, it had some unique circumstances, including the need to have high school and junior college cadets training together, to have two cadets per room and to rely heavily on in-person corps training.

“I still believe that HED has not really taken the time on an individual basis to review NMMI’s comprehensive plan,” he said. “We are halfway through the semester, and we are just now receiving feedback that affects the operation of the school and of the semester. The timeliness was really poor in my opinion. I had asked repeatedly for feedback back on July 2, when we submitted our report.”

Grizzle said that 15 employees and cadets initially tested positive when the semester first began, but that none have since that time.

He also said the contention that no remote learning is occurring is untrue. Instead, about 300 students are now taking online classes, he said. Cadets also are prohibited from visiting each others’ rooms, he said, and social distancing and face coverings are required. In addition, he noted in his Oct. 2 response to Rodriquez that the dining hall, which has plexiglass barriers on tables to separate people who are facing each other, is available only to cadets and employees, unlike a restaurant where members of the public gather and eat.

“The issues could have easily been worked through had someone actually called or if someone would have actually visited NMMI, and neither of these things ever took place,” Grizzle said.

Grizzle does acknowledge in his Oct. 2 letter that more could be done to ensure that visitors do not enter the campus unexpectedly and that people comply with policies.

“We want to reiterate that we strive to maintain a safe educational environment for our Corps of Cadets, faculty and staff,” Grizzle wrote. “These are challenging times, but we are committed to continuing our efforts to ensure compliance with best practices.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.