In a news conference Monday, New Mexico Department of Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said he wants all students back in the classroom by April 5.
The announcement came after the state said all teachers would be eligible to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March. “It is time to ring the bell to welcome our kids back to class,” Stewart said. “You can now get kids back in class for in-person learning every day.”
The department said school leadership will ultimately decide how and when these changes take effect. But that the expectation is that the transition to full reentry should take place by April 5. “We encourage our school leaders to work with their families, educators, school staff and community members,” the department said.
The announcement moves New Mexico public schools to the third and final stage of the Public Education Department’s COVID-19 Safe Operating Categories. All schools were in the remote category until Sept. 8; most elementary schools were eligible for the hybrid category in the fall; all schools became eligible for the hybrid category Feb. 8; and all schools are now eligible for full reentry, which means all students can return to their school buildings for in-person each school day.
COVID-Safe Practices will remain in place, including mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, enhanced indoor air quality and social distancing.
Vaccinations for School Staff
Based on an increase in supply of vaccines, the state is offering vaccines to every school staff member in the next three weeks. This week, vaccines will be offered to all school staff members who are already registered for the vaccine and are outside the Albuquerque metro area. Next week, vaccines will be offered to all registered school staff members in the Albuquerque metro; school staff members not currently registered and who register in the interim will be offered vaccines in the week ending March 26.
“As part of New Mexico’s nation-leading vaccine distribution effort, DOH is focusing on vaccinating K-12 educators, early childhood professionals and staff. We are eager to support the safe return of educators and students to the classroom,” Department of Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said.
More than 45,000 New Mexicans have registered as educators to receive the vaccine, which includes those in early childhood and higher education. Of the registered educators, almost 15,000 have already received the vaccine as members of previously eligible groups—health care workers; those 75 and older, and those with certain health conditions that place them at high risk for serious outcomes should they become infected.
Once school staff members provide evidence of full vaccination, they will no longer be required to participate in asymptomatic surveillance testing, which is used to prevent outbreaks. Since school reentry began Sept. 8, the overall positivity rate of school staff surveillance testing is 1%, well below the state’s 5% target. The positivity rate since the expansion of in-person learning on Feb. 8 is 0.3%.
Moving quickly to full reentry
Currently, 52,200 of New Mexico’s 330,000 public school students are already attending in-person learning in a hybrid model, attending school in person two days a week and studying remotely the other three days. Of the 50,000-plus people who staff public schools, 17,000 have already returned to in-person work.
Families still have the option for their child to study remotely, and the PED says in no case will a student be required to return to in-person learning if doing so would violate the requirements of a sovereign tribe, many of which are still in lockdown.
School Sports Are Back
Sports and other extracurricular activities may resume immediately at all schools, with explicit safety precautions in place. Extracurricular activities such as band, choir and drama may also resume.
The state’s largest school district, APS, said they’re updating the district’s reentry plan in order to meet the state’s April deadline and will present their latest plan to the Board of Education in the coming days.