SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The PED is tackling COVID cases in a new way. New Mexico schools with COVID-19 outbreaks will not shut down after four rapid responses like last year. Instead of forcing to schools to shut down after the rapid responses, they are working with schools to balance in-person learning with safety, giving school districts more power in deciding what’s best at each school.

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The NMPED says the number-one goal is to make sure kids are in school, learning in-person, so what mitigates the spread for one school, may not work for others. Much of the state’s districts are only two weeks into the new school year and schools across the state are already seeing COVID cases, but this time, they’re not shutting down.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to mitigate the effects of COVID and get our kids in school and make sure that they’re learning,” said Kurt Steinhaus, Secretary-Designate of the NMPED. “Last spring when we did the return to school, the four rapid responses was not working, so we’ve transitioned that.”

The department says the Delta variant threw a wrench in previous COVID-response plans for the new year. Because of that, PED is leaving it up to each district to make a plan that works for their specific schools when there’s an outbreak.

“It’s going to be unique to each school, so we’ve asked each school to write a plan that outlines that, but it might include, for example, more outdoor learning because we know that that’s, according to CDC guidance, the way to go,” said Steinhaus. “It’s more local decision making and what works best to keep kids in school and keep them safe.”

That can also include spacing kids out in the gymnasium with the doors open, or implementing hybrid learning in-person and online on a temporary basis. So why is there not a lot of worry about COVID in schools? The CDC says schools are not hotbeds of COVID spread and kids are rarely getting sick, as masks remain mandatory indoors.

“Under the current Delta variant, students are not getting as sick and sometimes they’re asymptomatic and don’t even know they’re sick,” said Steinhaus. “That’s why we’re also encouraging expansion of testing. We’re also encouraging expansion of washing your hands, and of course, we’re following the latest health guidance, everyone wears a mask, all the time inside, and that’s what we’re doing.”

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, there have only been four pediatric hospitalizations in the last week. There’s been around 265 total since the pandemic started.

“I’m also a parent and I can understand why parents are worried about their children,” said Steinhaus. “We are asking every school or school district to post their new COVID safe plans on their web page and we’re also asking the principals and the superintendents to reach out to parents, one parent at a time, and help answer their questions.”

Steinhaus previously served as superintendent of Los Alamos schools during the pandemic. He says reaching out to each individual parent helped get a lot of questions answered and problems solved.

According to the NMDOH mortality report on their website, the state has only seen four child deaths due to COVID since the start of the pandemic. The deadline for districts to submit their plans to the PED is Sept. 8.