SANTA FE, N.M. — More school districts in New Mexico can bring students back to classrooms in early February, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday.
The Democratic governor said she is allowing schools to open their doors to students of all ages, in a major pull-back of restrictions that were based on county-level COVID-19 case rates and hospital capacity.
“We will get this right, and we will move forward, and every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on February 8,” Lujan Grisham said in her virtual State of the State address to the Legislature.
Under the state’s hybrid plan released late last summer, students would attend classes two days a week and wouldn’t mix with other student groups.
The idea was to start with younger children and eventually open to high school students. But as COVID-19 cases remained high, few elementary schools were allowed to reopen, and no high schools made it into the hybrid mode.
Remote learning deprived some students of an education because they lack access to technology, with those in rural areas suffering disproportionately and as many as half of Native American students unable to connect online.
Despite efforts by the state’s Public Education Department and school districts, many students lacked internet into December. Those without electricity suffered the most.
Meanwhile, many working parents have struggled to find child care to fill the gap left by school closures.
Older students will face barriers to applying to colleges as failing grades have increased and student athletes have missed a season or two of sports because of virus restrictions.
School sports could resume as early as Feb. 22 if there isn’t a huge spike in cases, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said.
“The eligibility for sports will wait until a school or district has moved to expand the eligibility for their in-person learning,” he said in a briefing following the governor’s announcement.
While slow, a vaccine rollout for teachers has provided hope, and recent publications from CDC researchers indicate that students pose a low risk of virus transmission.
“I believe the planning and hard work has paid off, and our state has developed a solid, epidemiologically sound plan for a safe expansion of in-person learning for all age groups, supported by union leadership,” Lujan Grisham said.
That plan requires masking, cleaning and the spacing of students, It also requires teachers to participate in COVID-19 testing.
Schools with lots of positive tests in a short amount of time will have to close for 14 days.
Rules for air filters, initially so strict that they would require schools to replace their entire air systems, were loosened last year, removing one more barrier to schools opening up again.
The schools will need to install the highest quality filter possible, open windows and doors, and use fans to circulate more air.
Under the hybrid model that all schools can implement on Feb. 8, schools are allowed to bring 50% of students back at a time. Advocates for in-person learning believe that will give schools flexibility to offer more in-person time to those who need it.
“This is an important step forward in making sure that every student and family has the option to choose what is best for them, whether that is in-person instruction at their local school or continuing to learn in a virtual setting,” said Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN.
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.
The legislative session, which began earlier this month and runs through March, will give state leaders an opportunity to resuscitate the battered public education system in the coming years.
The statewide green light from the governor is no guarantee that all students will have access to in-person learning immediately. With the decision handed back to local authorities, there’s not a requirement to reopen.
Some school districts such as Rio Rancho put in place hybrid plans after COVID-19 benchmarks were met. 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.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.