Governor, PED outline statewide school plan

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Public Education Department have outlined safe reentry into school for students this fall.

With less than two weeks to go, the New Mexico Public Education Department on July 22 announced updates to the state’s plan for the safe and methodical reentry into school for students and educators this fall amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In accordance with this decision and existing Public Education Department reentry guidance, school districts and charter schools may continue to exercise local decision-making regarding the start date of school and online learning.

The state earlier this summer announced plans for a hybrid model of instruction to begin in school districts August 3, adopting a phased approach based on the public health conditions and epidemiological data available at the time.

However, the state’s COVID-19 landscape has worsened in the intervening weeks. Since June 10, the rolling 7-day average of new COVID-19 confirmed cases per day in New Mexico has increased by 123 percent to an average of 256 cases per day

In addition, the state's share of younger individuals testing positive for COVID-19 has increased. Throughout the pandemic, 4.7 percent of New Mexico's COVID-19 cases have been within the age range of 0 to 9 years.

In the last seven days, 6.5 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases have been identified in that age range. Similarly, 10 percent of the state’s overall COVID-19 cases have been identified in the 10-19 age range; in the last seven days, 15.7 percent of the state’s positive cases have been within that age range.

The PED said all school districts will be eligible to begin the school year under distance or remote learning formats beginning in August. It pointed out that districts and charter schools representing over 40 percent of the state's students - Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Silver City, Grants, Las Cruces, and Magdalena - have already announced plans to initially return in an online-only format.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said the health of students, faculty, and school staff members factors high in the decision to delay in-person learning.

“My focus has been and will remain right here: The health, safety and wellbeing of New Mexico students, educators, families and school communities,” Lujan Grisham said. “I do not feel comfortable beginning any form of in-person learning in the month of August. I know many parents and educators and students feel the same way. Until we can regain control of this virus, until our fight in this public health crisis begins to once again bear real fruit, we will not unduly risk even one New Mexican’s health or life or livelihood; we will not move unsafely or too quickly in our efforts to resume some form of ‘new normal’ in a COVID-positive world.”

She encourages school systems to use the month of August to continue preparations for safe and limited in-person learning under a hybrid model of instruction and to conduct professional development for educators. Under the hybrid model, the number of students present in the building at any given time will be limited to ensure that six feet of social distancing can be maintained at all times. Students will alternate between in-person instruction at the school building and online instruction when at home.

“With another month of strong collective efforts to fight COVID-19, using that time to continue to prepare and to help educators get the professional development they need to thrive in an online and remote environment, I am optimistic the state will be able to begin to adopt a hybrid model for phased groupings of students after Labor Day,” Lujan Grisham said. “I know everyone wants an answer. When will this be over? We all want it to be over. We all desperately want to hug our loved ones, to gather with friends and family and resume our work and education and livelihoods. To do that, we must stay committed and focused. We must treat fighting COVID-19 like a team sport. Everyone has a role to play.”

As part of their reentry plans, schools and districts are required to provide breakfast and lunch to students even if students are learning remotely from home. The Public Education Department is encouraging schools and districts to provide these meals through established grab-and-go sites, as many did in the spring while incorporating COVID-Safe Practices and safety protocols, such as staggered meal times.

In addition, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department is collaborating with the Public Education Department to stand up child care options throughout the state; the ECECD is additionally seeking to extend its Summer Food Service Program beyond the end of August to continue providing free, community-based meals.