SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's public schools now have rules and suggestions for how to reopen in the fall in what could amount to a giant experiment during an uncertain time brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Public Education Department released guidance Tuesday that requires schools to start the year in a hybrid learning model with in-person attendance limited to 50% of classroom capacity.
State officials are billing the plan as “a prudent and responsible process.”
“The state’s goal is to move all schools into a full school schedule as soon as it can be safely accomplished,” the guidance states.
School staff must have their temperatures checked daily and submit to COVID-19 testing. Schools also need to report results to state health officials. Students and staff must wear masks, and large gatherings like pep rallies or assemblies are to be avoided.
The state will monitors cases regionally to determine if some schools can fully reopen or be forced to close due to changes in infection rates.
In the hybrid model, students will have to continue with online lessons when at home.
All students must be provided meals, suggesting schools will have to resume delivery systems for those learning remotely. Cafeterias, if used, are encouraged to stagger lunch times and spread out the students to comply with social distancing requirements.
The guidance comes after a month of consultation with a task force that was made up of scores of parents, teachers and administrators who meet in mass Zoom calls and breakout sessions. They considered many ideas that might have been logistically challenging, such as requiring bus drivers to check every student’s temperature.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory also explored numerous school infection scenarios, according to state Human Services Secretary David Scrase.
“We’re looking at how we reopen schools safely. We’re looking very closely at what’s happening in Europe,” Scrase said during a briefing Friday, noting that preliminary data out of Denmark and Iceland suggest that children may not transmit COVID as much but state officials still are hoping more can be learned about the virus.
For most, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
“The real issue about reopening schools is whether they’re transmitters and whether they can spread at schools,” Scrase said. “This is a big focus because obviously we’ve got 330,000 children in New Mexico that this will effect and we want to do it right. We don’t want to do just a dramatic reopening of schools like other states have done. We know that if we did that, we would likely see a huge uptick in cases.”
School openings in August will be something of an experiment.
The guidance document says reopening schools at half capacity “will allow the state to collect and analyze data on the impact of a controlled start on the spread of the virus.”
Stephanie Ly, president of the New Mexico chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said Monday her main suggestion,to hire more teachers did not make it into the guidelines.
“Class sizes need to be reduced. We can no longer in this day and age stuff that many students into a classroom. So our schools are going to have to hire more educators,” Ly said.
The guidance does suggest ways that staff could cover for each other, for example by cross training educational aides and substitute teachers.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.
Cedar Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.