SANTA FE — Middle and high school students are included in a decision announced Tuesday to expand in-person learning options beginning Feb. 8 for every district and charter school across New Mexico based on extensive preparations and protocols to assure student and educator safety.
The Public Education Department’s updated guidance for expanded in-person learning, approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, gives school districts and charter schools three options for in-person learning:
• All schools — elementary and secondary — in all counties will be eligible to enter the hybrid mode, which means bringing back up to 50 percent of students at a time in order to maintain social distancing and to keep students in smaller cohorts to avoid virus transmission;
• Districts and schools with fewer than 100 students may bring back all students in a 5:1 ratio with no more than six people per enclosed indoor space;
• Districts/schools not ready to welcome back students into a full hybrid model may expand small-group instruction to all grades — maintaining cohorts — with up to 50 percent of students participating at a time.
The expansion of in-person learning – announced in the governor’s State of the State address, issued Tuesday – is the result of extensive collaboration between the Governor’s Office, the Public Education Department, the Department of Health, school and district leaders, unions, educators and school staff to collect COVID-19 data, implement COVID-safe practices, conduct surveillance testing, improve indoor air quality, distribute PPE, monitor the Rapid Response Watchlist, and prioritize educators for the vaccine.
“This is the news we’ve all been waiting for and a significant step in returning to what we all knew as ‘normal’ before last March,” said Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart. “The state has removed barriers to in-person learning that were erected to protect the health and lives of New Mexicans, but it’s important to note that individual districts and charter schools still may decide that it’s in the best interests of their staff, students and communities to remain in a remote stance for now.”
Even if their schools move to hybrid, families may choose for their children to remain in the remote learning mode, including children living on tribal territory that remains closed.
“We are asking districts to respect tribal sovereignty in this as in other regards,” Stewart said. “Students will not be forced to violate the rules of their community by coming and going to school.”
All three options to expand in-person learning require districts and charter schools to meet rigorous safety measures, including:
• For red counties, surveillance testing for all in-person staff at a rate of 25 percent per week to achieve 100 percent testing over a month’s time;
• For yellow and green counties, surveillance testing for all in-person staff at a rate of 12.5 percent per week to achieve 100 percent testing over two months’ time;
• An onsite visit to certify readiness to open safely;
• Continued cohorting of student groups;
• Consistent reporting of the number of individuals on campus;
• Strict enforcement of COVID-safe practices like mask-wearing and social distancing;
• Upgraded air filtration to improve indoor air quality;
• Signed assurance that the district will follow PED Rapid Response Protocols.
This will be the first opportunity for in-person learning since mid-March for most middle school and high school students. Most elementary schools were eligible to reopen in the hybrid mode this fall if they were in a green county and met rigorous safety protocols.
Since then, data from rapid responses show that schools generally have been able to avoid school-based outbreaks in New Mexico, mirroring recent national and international studies. No New Mexico schools have reached the rapid response closure threshold of four rapid responses in a 14-day period. The current test positivity rate for school staff is 2.2 percent.
The expanded in-person learning plan was developed in partnership with two unions representing New Mexico educators.
“NEA-New Mexico has long appreciated the governor and the Public Education Department’s approach grounded in science and safety for our students. We now plan to work closely with them to ensure that those districts choosing to expand in-person learning rigorously follow COVID-safe practices in order to protect the lives of students, families, educators and communities,” said Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association New Mexico.
“We are extremely pleased to see this plan’s embrace of continued COVID-safe practices, among them the strong efforts to safely accommodate high-risk educators, ventilation and classroom air filtration, on-going surveillance testing, sanitation protocols, adequate personal protective equipment, and transportation and isolation protocols,” said Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico.
School closings have been hardest on low-income families, especially those lacking digital devices or internet connectivity. That led to a multi-prong, public-private effort to narrow New Mexico’s digital divide by creating hundreds of internet hotspots around the state, distributing thousands of Google Chromebooks to Native American students, encouraging internet providers to offer affordable service, and obtaining state and federal funding to close remaining gaps.
Additionally, PED distributed millions of meals to students and launched ENGAGE NM to provide supports to those disengaged in remote learning. The agency also helped schools prepare to welcome students back by distributing PPE, including masks, and by prioritizing educators for the vaccine.
“The faster we get New Mexicans registered and vaccinated – and the more testing we continue to do – the more we’ll corner this virus and reclaim other aspects of our lives,” said DOH Secretary-Designate Dr. Tracie Collins.
“Because we can better enforce COVID-19 safe practices in schools, as we expand to in-person learning in school districts, we can mitigate the spread of the virus and ensure the best safety measures for kids/students, teachers and staff in schools,” said Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase.
The governor first ordered schools closed in mid-March when COVID had only a toe-hold in the state and little was known about how it spread. In the fall, elementary schools in green counties were allowed to reopen in the hybrid mode after meeting rigorous safety requirements; many opted to remain in remote learning mode.
FAQs: Spring 2021 Return-to-School
Q: When will my middle/high school open?
A: That is a local decision to be made by each district or charter school’s governing board. The Public Education Department now permits all middle and high schools to reopen in a hybrid model beginning Feb. 8. However, they are not required to do so and may choose to remain in the remote learning mode.
Q: What is the hybrid model?
A: The hybrid model divides students into two groups or “cohorts.” Both groups attend school in-person up to 2.5 days a week. Cohorting cuts in half the number of students who would have to quarantine if one member tested positive for the virus.
Q: What has changed for elementary students?
A: All elementary students in New Mexico may now return to in-person learning in the hybrid mode if their district/charter chooses to do so. Previously, a district had to be located in a green county to move to hybrid for the first time.
Q: What do we have to do to get to full reentry?
A: Districts and schools may go to full reentry when their county is colored green on the COVID-19 map (indicating adequate control of virus spread.)