Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart gave a virtual press conference Friday morning on the implications of the latest public health order for publi schools. Courtesy photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart gave a virtual press conference Friday morning on the implications of the governor’s newest emergency public health order but ironically, due to technical difficulties, it was not live streamed as planned on the Public Education Department’s Facebook page but released later for public viewing.
Stewart said noted the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases statewide, calling it “incredibly alarming on many fronts” including for the state’s ability to maximize the amount of safe, in-person learning which he said is the guiding principle of reentry.
“We desperately know that we want to see kids in classrooms with their teachers and as our public health conditions continue to see these spikes in the virus the way we have been, it certainly makes that much more difficult,” he said.
Stewart said the PED is making all efforts they can to make sure to be transparent in how they are reporting what is happening in the schools with COVID-19 cases.
“Since schools began the hybrid model on Sept. 8 this year, we’ve seen 244 cases of COVID-19 across the state and that’s across 148 different schools,” he said, adding that this was 154 staff members and 90 students.
Stewart said as the state is going through the surge in the virus, schools are being prioritized in their ability to continue operating and serving students. With the public health order announced Thursday, there are some public school exemptions, he said.
Schools that are currently operating in the hybrid model – bringing in students, typically half the student body for in-person learning and half remote can continue to operate in the hybrid model at their 50 percent level, Stewart said. Additionally, micro-districts that are operating at their full capacity as long as they can do it at their 5:1 ratio that has already been authorized can also continue to operate can remain open. Small groups of K-3 students attending school at more than the 5:1 ration are also allowed to continue.
Stewart addressed school districts like Los Alamos that were currently in remote in a “green” county and have already announced to their community a future planned reopening date, which are being allowed to move forward as scheduled.
“We’ve spoken with those superintendents and charter school leaders that that has impacted. They will make a local decision as to whether or not they do indeed choose to go forward based on the newest health information,” he said. “And again those who were in a green county and already announced a future planned opening date are allowed to move forward at local discretion.”
Stewart said that as a state it’s really important to know that there is a clear, science-based statewide gating criteria that has driven reopening not just in schools but in sectors of the economy and based on the present surge, some troubling signs have been seen and the state is no longer meeting those statewide gating criteria which will limit the ability to open additional schools beyond the categories he mentioned.
He noted that the state recognizes that once schools open, it is very important for consistently for families not to have to immediately close because they’ve slipped from green into yellow, orange to red. As the Department of Health, PED and the governor’s office see the alarming case numbers they are looking at the data these to make determinations as to when the spread of the virus is getting too far afield to where some preemptive action would have to be taken in certain counties if the spread rates get too far, Stewart said.
“Threshold numbers have not been set yet. We will continue to monitor the data and work with the DOH on setting those thresholds. One thing I do want to reemphasize – we are at the point where if we don’t take all the actions and measures we can to stop the spread of the virus, then we do run the risk of spread rates getting to the point where we would have to close down schools and go back into the remote learning model until we get those under control,” he said.
Stewart noted that when the decision needs to be made about shutting down schools it will be done on a county by county approach.
“I don’t want to take off the table the notion that if we continue to see the spread of the virus that we’ve seen in the last few days, different decisions may have to be made, but at the current time we continue to operate on the county level,” he said.
Stewart said getting students back for in-person learning is a top priority of the reopening process and the trajectory that the state is on will make that increasingly difficult to do.
In response to questions, he said a timetable has not been set on schools having to close.
“We’re working with DOH to determine if they feel like we’ve reached a point where we need to do that. We will solidify that here shortly. As of right now, all schools can continue to operate in their current model and we will continue with our rapid response process as cases are identified,” Stewart said.
He said his message to teachers who are in fear of going back to work in hybrid model is that the number one guiding principle has been protecting the health of students and educators.
“I think New Mexico has the most advanced safety protocols – everything from our facemasks, our social distancing, our air filtration, the deliberate approach to the hybrid re-entry – all this is in an effort to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep educators safe and make this process as safe as possible. But that fear is real and we’ve heard this loud and clear from many educators, that there is real concern and worry. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to try to support educators including exemptions for high-risk staff if you fall into the CDC categories to be able to get into a virtual option,” Stewart said.
He stressed the importance of wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and abiding by the public health order for keeping the number of cases down in the state.