NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart held a news conference Tuesday to give updated information about expanded in-person learning options for school districts.

During the State of the State Address Tuesday, Gov. Lujan Grisham announced that “every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on Feb. 8.” She also said that her administration has worked with educators, doctors and scientists to craft a “solid, epidemiologically-sound plan for a safe expansion of in-person learning for all age groups, supported by union leadership.”

“This is a first step, not a last step. It requires our ongoing diligence to make sure it works,” said Ryan Stewart, New Mexico Public Education Secretary.

According to a news release from the Public Education Department:

  • All schools — elementary and secondary — in all counties will be eligible to enter the hybrid mode, which means bringing back up to 50 percent of students at a time in order to maintain social distancing and to keep students in smaller cohorts to avoid virus transmission;
  • Districts and schools with fewer than 100 students may bring back all students in a 5:1 ratio with no more than six people per enclosed indoor space;
  • Districts/schools not ready to welcome back students into a full hybrid model may expand small-group instruction to all grades — maintaining cohorts — with up to 50 percent of students participating at a time.

The release also states that even if a school district moves to hybrid, families may choose for their child to remain in the remote learning mode, including those that live on tribal territory that remain closed. “We are asking districts to respect tribal sovereignty in this as in other regards,” said Dr. Stewart. “Students will not be forced to violate the rules of their community by coming and going to school.”

According to NMPED, all three options to expand in-person learning require districts and charter schools to meet rigorous safety measures, including:

  • For red counties, surveillance testing for all in-person staff at a rate of 25 percent per week to achieve 100 percent testing over a month’s time;
  • For yellow and green counties, surveillance testing for all in-person staff at a rate of 12.5 percent per week to achieve 100 percent testing over two months’ time;
  • An onsite visit to certify readiness to open safely;
  • Continued cohorting of student groups;
  • Consistent reporting of the number of individuals on campus;
  • Strict enforcement of COVID-safe practices like mask-wearing and social distancing;
  • Upgraded air filtration to improve indoor air quality;
  • Signed assurance that the district will follow PED Rapid Response Protocols.

If a county moves into a different level of risk, only its surveillance testing will be impacted. “So, we’re not shutting down a school, we’re increasing the surveillance testing percentage to make sure we’re able to proactively capture any asymptomatic individuals,” Dr. Stewart said. Though the school is continuing its rapid response system for schools. A school would shut down for 14 days if it received four rapid responses over a 14 day period. Dr. Stewart noted that no school has had to shut down due to too many rapid responses so far.

A big question surrounding the announcement was, why now? The state’s top doctor pointed to science saying recent articles showed infection in schools reflected the infection rate of a community. He also pointed to the state’s own data.

“The most infections we had were related to schools about 200. And that was in a probably in a week where we had close to 10,000 cases. So, a very, very small percent of overall cases…We know not everybody was back in school. But even the kids that were, it’s a very small proportion of cases,” he said. “The medical literature support and then all the data I just showed you, including modeling, really assured all of us that we’re going to be good to go here.”

According to the Associated Press, under the state’s hybrid plan released last summer, students would attend classes two days per week and wouldn’t don’t mix with other student groups and the idea was to start with younger kids and eventually open to high school students. But as COVID-19 cases remained high, few schools were allowed to reopen.

Some school districts such as Rio Rancho put in place hybrid plans after COVID-19 benchmarks were met. Albuquerque Public Schools said it is assessing all the information from the state and seeing how its own reentry plan aligns. Other school boards are still hesitant to reopen. Santa Fe Public Schools tried a hybrid model last semester and then abandoned it as cases soared. At the news conference, Dr. Stewart said so far, fewer than five districts indicated they plan to stay remote.

While districts learned of the February 8 date during the Governor’s announcement, Dr. Stewart said in weekly meetings with school and district leaders, the state told stakeholders in-person learning a nearing possibility and encouraged them to prepare.

The state said vaccinating teachers is a priority but they are not moving up in the line. The state is continuing to focus on individuals 75 and older, but noted educators may fall into that category or other already-eligible categories. On Tuesday, the NMDOH indicated it would take months to get through everyone currently eligible for the vaccine, meaning teachers wouldn’t get vaccinated until well after Feb. 8.

Lujan Grisham’s announcement followed growing pressure to reopen schools for students of all ages – including a bipartisan bill in the Legislature that would have given the power to reopen schools to local officials.