State Doctor discusses school preparedness for COVID-19, testing strategies

Coronavirus New Mexico

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Wednesday, August 12 was the start of what will be a very odd school year for kids across New Mexico. Even though students aren’t back in actual classrooms yet, a lot of people are hoping that day will come soon.

KRQE News 13 spoke with the state’s top doctor about how schools are prepared to keep COVID-19 at bay. Restarting schools in the midst of a pandemic has required a lot of changing plans, and it’s something the state’s Medical Advisory Team has been heavily involved in.

“What we do know is the most important thing about kids returning to school as to whether it’s gonna go well or not go well, is what’s going on in the community at the time,” said Dr. David Scrase, Secretary for the Human Services Department.

Keeping a low case count statewide will give the stateroom to see some case growth once schools do reopen to in-person learning, Dr. Scrase explained. So what will it look like when a student does test positive?

“We do what contact tracers and case investigators do right now, which is focus on that case itself and who they had contact with,” explained Dr. Scrase. “So if Jimmy in third grade tests positive, then maybe it’s just his class and the kids on the bus that would need further evaluation.”

That’s why limiting the number of people kids come into contact with is important, Dr. Scrase said. The state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, sent out a more detailed plan on Tuesday.

The APS plan includes emailing letters to let families know about a positive COVID-19 case. The district said in its plan. “You may be frustrated by how vague the message is, but please remember that we are obligated to protect the privacy of the infected individual. We cannot identify them, nor can we provide information about their medical situation.”

APS also provided a glimpse of what it looks like inside school. Schools have been installing plexiglass and putting up safety signs to remind people about social distancing and hand washing.

All classrooms will have a sanitation tote so teachers and students can wipe down spaces after each use. Custodians will also clean and sanitize classrooms every evening.

“No one knows how long this pandemic is going to last, or when we can return to the normal setting we all prefer,” said Scott Elder, APS Interim Superintendent. “Still, we will never get this time back. We have to do everything possible to support our teachers and students so the educational process doesn’t suffer.”

The Medical Advisory Team is working on a testing strategy for schools to make the best use of the state’s resources. Dr. Scrase said the goal is still to open schools in a hybrid model after Labor Day.

Right now, New Mexico is hitting its testing targets and on a downward trend. It’s something Dr. Scrase said will need to continue in order to reopen schools safely and potentially loosen more restrictions within the state.

“When we’re meeting all eight key performance indicators, that does indicate that there’s room, but the first slot to take up that room is really kids returning to school,” said Dr. Scrase. “And so we’ll have to see how much room there is after we build that in.”

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