SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — At least half of New Mexico’s K-12 students set foot in a classroom at least one day last week, as vaccines become easier to get across the state including for students aged 16 and up, state officials said.
Around 160,500 children were recorded as attending school in person, or about half of the state’s total K-12 enrollment, according to state data made public Wednesday. With only 80% of districts and charters reporting, the number of kids attending in person classes is probably higher.
State education officials asked school districts and charters to reopen to full-time, in-person on April 5th. A small number of them never reopened due to tribal health orders.
“As expected, New Mexico is now offering in-person instruction to every student who wants it in all but a handful of cases,” said Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said Thursday. “New Mexico has 840 individual schools, and only 17 have had to return temporarily to remote instruction. I’d say that’s a good sign that our safety protocols are working as intended, and in-person learning can proceed with only minimal and temporary disruptions.”
While precise enrollment and in-person attendance data is not made available for all schools, in-person attendance from last week was released by Albuquerque Public Schools for each of its schools, which serve about one in every five New Mexico students attending K-12. Over 50% went in-person last week.
In-person attendance was lower at high schools in Albuquerque compared to middle and elementary schools. It ranged from 18% attending in-person at West Mesa High School and 87% at Early College Academy. Neither high school responded to requests for comment.
The attendance rates were highest at Albuquerque’s elementary schools, and ranged from 22% to 98% of students back in the classroom.
About 95% of students are back in seats at S.Y. Jackson Elementary School, in Albuquerque, where internet woes were minimal during the year of remote learning and students had access to six hours of synchronous learning each day.
“So it was just a part of their everyday routine going to school. And I think if they’d only been on mornings only, and they didn’t know their teachers quite as well,” said principal Jack Vermillion, who had been expecting about 80% of his students to return. “I think that was a huge part of it.”
The high in-person attendance rate was made possible by a change in Centers for Disease Control guidance allowing three feet (0.9 meters) of distance between students instead of six feet (1.8 meters), Vermillion said. While classroom furniture had to be shuffled and desks spaced out further than usual, the change made it possible to fit the entire student population into the same school, he said.
There are still students staying in remote learning out of an abundance of health safety.
“We actually have grandparents raising kids,” said Vermillion. “There’s some people — and my wife’s one of them — who were still kind of in PTSD from the whole thing. And they’re still just a little cautious about, you know, sending their kids back into an environment where there’s any kind of a risk at all.”
New Mexico’s return to in-person learning followed a campaign to vaccinate school workers in March. Over 85% of pre-K through college educators who signed up on the state’s vaccine and testing website have received one dose of the vaccine and 72% are fully vaccinated.
Next week, state health officials will make it easier for residents including those 16 and older to schedule and receive a COVID-19 vaccines. Minors can only get the Pfizer vaccine for now and need a guardian to sign a permission form.
“What we’re hoping to do is to work with local schools and school districts to reach out to those 16- and 17-year-olds before they go off for the summer to do various things,” Department of Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said. “It’s important that we work with their parents,” Collins said.