SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins, and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase held a virtual news conference on Monday, March 8 to provide updated information about expanded in-person learning.

New Mexico Public Education Department announced that all New Mexico schools can begin in-person learning with the hopes of reaching full reentry by April 5. NMPED says the timeline for reopening will still be up to school districts and school boards but they do have the expectation that all school and all kids return to in-person learning by April 5 unless a family chooses for their child to be remote only. NMPED says if any district has a significant portion of students making that choice, the PED will provide the flexibility if needed.

To get to this point, since February 8, the state has had about 50,000 students back in the hybrid model and 17,000 school staff members back which the PED says has proved districts can return safely. Dr. David Scrase said our seven-day rolling average of cases is just about one-third of what it was six weeks ago. “Schools are safe,” Dr. Scrase said. “We did the modeling. Kids are less likely to get COVID in a well-supervised school where CSPs are being enforced than not being in school.”

While students may choose to stay virtual only, every teacher is expected to return after having an opportunity to receive their first shot. The state announced that all K-12 educators, early childhood professionals, and staff are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The New Mexico Department of Health is doing a three-week vaccination rollout to get every educator in the state their first shot by the end of March. Stewart said there is an automatic exemption for teachers who are elderly or have an underlying medical condition until they are fully vaccinated. “The exemption for that stuff will remain in place until two weeks after their final vaccine dose, at which point, the employer and employee can engage in conversation about what, if any, accommodations should continue.”

Ellen Bernstein with the Albuquerque Teachers Federation said the announcement caught her and teachers off guard. “We are surprised,” Bernstein said. “That is pretty much my main reaction. We are surprised, and I need to get together with the people I represent and figure out what they are thinking. I know the first thing on their minds is ‘how are we going to do this safely?'”

Stewart said districts have had plenty of time to prepare, and PED will work with every district to make sure all schools have the resources available to open by April 5. “We are all in this together to make it work,” Stewart said.

Albuquerque Public School board president Dr. David Peercy said that APS will meet the April 5 deadline to fully reopen. He said there will be a Special Board of Education meeting Friday to discuss issues, concerns, and the path forward. APS board member Peggy Muller Aragon also spoke out about PED’s announcement. “It is about time,” she wrote in an email to KRQE News 13. “We should have been there a long time ago.”

The NMPED also announced that all schools can begin offering New Mexico Activities Association-sponsored activities, including sports, and may resume other curricular and extracurricular activities such as band, choir, and drama. NMPED is working with the NMAA on coming up with new schedules. PED says precautions for sports include no congregating during warm-ups or breaks in play; no overnight travel, and masks required for all except when eating or drinking.

PED said choir and band will be allowed outdoors and students may not share instruments and must follow COVID-safe practices such as using cloth bell covers on wind instruments, both singers and musicians must be masked and maintain enhanced social distancing of nine feet when playing or singing in groups.

NMPED said COVID-safe practices will remain in place, including mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, enhanced indoor air quality, and social distancing. They say schools will be encouraged to use large communal spaces and outdoor spaces to maximize social distancing, especially during meal times.

Last week, PED made the announcement that fans will be allowed to attend high school sporting events depending on their county’s color code. Counties in the Turquoise Level will allow up to 75% capacity at outdoor sporting events and up to 33% capacity for indoor sports.

Green Counties can allow up to 50% capacity for outdoor and 25% capacity for indoor sports. Red will now allow spectators. The host team’s county color will govern the spectator capacity.