The state is getting ready to allow some elementary schools to reopen for in-person instruction next week, as part of a hybrid model with remote learning, the state Public Education Department Secretary said in an online press conference on Thursday.
“We’ve been anxiously awaiting the point where we can get back into schools, with the public health conditions and the systems that we’ve put in place to support those conditions are in place,” PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said. “We’ve taken a very deliberate approach to this because we know we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re seeing big outbreaks or we’re seeing some of the issues that have happened elsewhere.”
The state will allow districts and charter schools in counties with under 5 percent positivity rate and under eight daily cases per 100,000 residents, both on 14-day rolling averages, to reopen if they wish. Additionally, districts and charter schools in those counties that qualify must have PED-approved plans for reopening, including strict COVID-safe protocols, to get the go-ahead to reopen.
Seven counties did not meet either goal, as of the data from Aug. 19 to Sept. 1: Chase, Eddy, Hidalgo, Lea, Luna, Roosevelt and Quay counties. Curry and McKinley counties each had the test positivity numbers to qualify, but not the average daily cases. And Doña Ana County did not reach the test positivity rate, but reached the average daily cases mark.
All other counties in the state reached both marks.
And while McKinley County and Doña Ana County narrowly did not make the list, Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase said after much debate, the state ultimately decided not to have any leeway on reopening.
“The line is really the line,” Scrase said.
A full list of counties and charter schools that are planning on reopening next week is not available, Stewart said, because school districts are still making decisions on whether or not to open.
The final data on whether or not counties qualified wasn’t available until the start of the press conference on Thursday.
The two cabinet officials also explained the reasoning behind not also opening middle and high schools to some in-person instruction as soon as elementary schools.
For one, Stewart said, elementary school students are learning to read and have shorter attention spans than older students.
Scrase also mentioned that the social interaction patterns of middle and high school students are different than elementary school students.
“I think it’s a great place to start,” Scrase said.
Stewart and Scrase both emphasized that schools will require masks and have other COVID-safe practices in place.
As part of this, Stewart said PED sent 500,000 masks to school districts and charter schools last week, with another 200,000 set to be shipped out in coming weeks.
The PED will receive a total of 1.1 million masks to send throughout the state, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Stewart said.
“Our districts have invested a significant amount of money, especially through CARES Act, and through some of their operational dollars, on PPE,” Stewart said. “We have supplemented with additional resources that we’ve been able to procure both through state funds and through federal funds and through our partnerships with FEMA.”
Other protective equipment will also be available.
“A lot of work has gone into making sure that all of our schools are set up to make sure that everybody has the masks that they need and those staff that work in close-contact assignments where they may have to have duties that include changing student’s diapers or changing feeding tubes, that we provide them with more stringent PPE requirements so we can make sure that everybody has a safe environment and the materials they need to contain the spread of the virus,” Stewart said.
Additionally, the state will have surveillance testing among staff “to track and monitor proactively” to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks.
As for private schools, PED does not have the same authority it does over school districts and charter schools. Private schools are bound by other aspects of the public health order.
Throughout it all, Stewart emphasized safety and how “it takes a village,” from students, to parents, to administrators, educators and other staff at schools to help contain the virus.
“We’re taking every possible precaution to contain the virus,” he said.