NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – All of the planning to reopen schools has been a daunting task for districts across New Mexico. When schools do welcome students back to the classroom, the experience will be far from normal. On Special Assignment, KRQE News 13 looked into what the added safety measures are costing school districts, and what kids and parents can expect to see.
“New Mexicans should expect that I’m prepared to make every hard decision that saves lives,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during a March 13 news conference. When the governor originally ordered schools to close for three weeks, no one expected what would take place in the months to come.
“It’s gonna be complicated with two working parents,” said Anna Wallin. Her daughter is supposed to start kindergarten this year, and like many parents, she and her husband are anxiously waiting to see what the school year might look like when kids can return to the classroom.
As the COVID-19 virus spread through communities, the state assembled a task force to work through the logistics of how to safely reopen all 89 school districts across New Mexico in a pandemic. Along with academics, health and safety are top priorities.
“We know and all the research tells us that the best place for our students and kids to be is in school, and that is in-person,” explained Nancy Martira, Former Director of Communications for the New Mexico Public Education Department. “That is the goal that everybody is working towards.”
To do that, the state put together rigorous safety requirements for all school districts. One of the basic requirements will be mandatory mask-wearing when entering a school building.
Under the Public Health Order, masks are already required when outside your home. While some people are choosing to ignore the public health order, there will be nothing optional about the mask order at school.
“The way that we have been thinking about it is kind of like part of a school uniform,” explained Martira. That means when parents send their kids to school, Martira said making sure they have a mask on should be like making sure they have a clean shirt to wear.
So, what does it look like to make sure all students and staff have a mask in the first place? “It’s a pretty monumental task,” explained Scott Elder, Interim Superintendent for the state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools.
Supplying Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, masks, hand sanitizer, and extra cleaning supplies for the district during the pandemic has been an arduous task. It’s also expensive.
To give people an idea, Albuquerque Public Schools says cloth masks run around $3.50 apiece. To buy 110,000 cloth masks for the district’s students and staff one time would cost $385,000. To buy single-use paper masks for students and staff one time would cost around $186,000.
School districts are only required to supply masks for school staff. It’s up to parents to make sure their child has and wears a mask. However, schools will need more on-hand in case a student doesn’t have access to one, or shows up to school without a face covering.
“I would really encourage families to work with their students now, especially young ones, because they may not be getting a lot of practice wearing a mask,” Elder explained. He also asks parents to make sure their child has a well-fitting mask, since children’s masks can be tougher to size properly than adults.
Federal aid will help with some of the costs. As part of the CARES Act, the state distributed roughly $97 million to school districts across New Mexico.
APS received about $26 million, but due to a budget shortfall, Elder says $11 million of that went straight back into APS’s operational budget. “No one got the full amount,” he added.
When asked whether APS will be able to afford extra cleaning supplies and PPE for schools throughout the year, Elder said, “It’s gonna be difficult, but we will make it work, we have to. We have to make it work, there’s no ifs ands or buts.”
“At PED, we are looking at every federal dollar and state dollar,” Martira told News 13. There’s also been community efforts to help schools.
Rio Rancho Public Schools partnered with Sandoval County and secured reusable cloth masks for each of the district’s 3,000 employees. Sandoval County Emergency Manager Seth Muller said he was happy to help the school district when school officials reached out.
“I have some supplies that I can order to help augment your order, but I also have a bunch of stuff that was already given to us,” Muller said.
Muller, along with other county emergency managers across the state, can place PPE orders through the state for places like local daycares, schools, municipalities, and businesses. There are 33 counties in New Mexico, which Muller said makes it easier for the state to track orders, rather than deal with every individual municipality.
“The state is paying for all of this PPE,” Muller explained. “But ultimately, we are paying right because it’s our tax dollars, so we want to help the state be more fiscally responsible for the money,” he added.
Though orders have slowed down since March, Muller said at one point the state was spending roughly $3 million per week on PPE. He’s now encouraging places that can do so, order PPE, and things like masks from local vendors to support the economy. So far, Rio Rancho Schools have spent $175,000 for 71 touchless temperature tablets, and more than $14,000 on masks.
Across New Mexico, it’s been a mixture of local, state, and federal efforts to ensure schools have what they need to welcome students back. “We’re at a time where we all feel very separate, and isolated,” said Elder. “But we need each other more than ever.”
Each county is tracking its PPE orders through the state to eventually get some reimbursement from FEMA. However, Muller explained it could take years before New Mexico sees any reimbursement for COVID-19 pandemic expenses.
If anyone would like to help provide masks for kids when they head back to school, head to KRQE.com/cares and click on the red donate button.