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Education secretary: Teacher safety a top priority

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In a press conference Friday afternoon, New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the health and safety of teachers is the department’s top priority.

Stewart conducted the press conference to outline that schools that have opened to the hybrid model of learning are exempt from the revised public health order that took effect Friday. Schools that opened in counties that now have gone higher than the state’s gating criteria will not have to step backwards to remote learning. However, he warned if new cases of COVID-19 continue to increase as they have the past week, the state might have to examine doing so.

During the press conference, Stewart took several questions from the media concerning the pandemic’s effects on teachers.

Asked about teachers who have said they would resign before returning to in-person teaching because of the risk of contracting COVID-19, Stewart said he has heard those concerns.

“First and foremost, I would say our No. 1 guiding principle throughout all of this has been protecting the health and safety of our students and educators. But that fear is real, and we’ve heard this loud and clear from many educators that there is really concern, there is real worry,” he said.

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Teachers who fall into the high-risk categories outlined by the Centers for Disease Control are allowed exemptions from teaching in person and can teach virtual classes, he said.

Among those in the high-risk category are those age 60 and over. According to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017-18, the average age of New Mexico’s teachers was 46 years, the highest in the nation. Almost one quarter of the state’s teachers are age 55 or older. Stewart said that is a concern for the Public Education Department.

“We have said those teachers who fall into high-risk categories can ask for low-contact or no-contact teaching assignments for this year,” Stewart said.

“It’s going to pose some pretty intense challenges in terms of staffing and being able to return in some districts. I had conversations with a number of superintendents who have a particularly high percentage of teachers who fall into that category who are really going to struggle to be able to figure out the staffing for returning,” he said.

A study by New Mexico State University released Tuesday shows the number of teacher vacancies in the state has decreased, but Stewart said it is impossible to tell what effects the pandemic might have on that in the future.

“We know that this pandemic is really creating a lot of uncertainty that’s out there. At this point, it’s hard to predict what the long-term effect would be. Certainly my hope is between all the work we’re doing, both to create as healthy an environment as we can to bring our educators back, to be very deliberate about how to do so and the continued work we are doing around our educator ecosystem, generally that we will continue to see the progress we’re making on decreasing the vacancy rate into the future,” he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.