Jonathan Blaustein dropped his kids off at Taos Charter School early Friday (Sept. 3). By the time he got home, the school called to tell him that a child had tested positive, and a cohort of fourth graders were being sent home. His daughter, Amelie, was among them.
"They said, 'come pick up your child, someone in the fourth grade tested positive. We're shutting down the whole class, quarantine for 10 days, and get tested,'" said Blaustein.
"When my wife went to get her, nobody said a word. No information, no apologies, no explanation. Nothing - no communication - beyond that initial phone call," he said.
Jeremy Jones, the school's director, said his staff immediately implemented the protocol they planned to use if a student tested positive.
"We're doing a Rapid Response. That includes sending the group home that were possibly exposed," said Jones, who sent around 24 of the school's 218 students home for a 10-day quarantine. The kids will have to test negative for COVID-19 before they are allowed to return to in-person learning.
"We keep every class separate throughout the day," said Jones. "They have separate places for eating, for break and for their parent pickup. It's all segregated so that we can keep groups apart - in case this happens."
Separating the students by class and cohort means when a student does test positive, the school only has to send home kids within the cohort, and does not have to shut the whole school down.
A few hours after Amelie got home, Taos Charter School sent a series of emails to parents explaining what would happen next: the school would offer online instruction Tuesday-Friday, and the kids will return to the classroom Sept. 13.
This was the first incident of its kind at the charter school, but certainly not the first time this school year that COVID has interfered with students returning to classroom learning.
A county-wide issue
"Every case we have had came from outside of the school," said Lillian Torrez, superintendent of the Taos Municipal Schools District. "Parents call to let us know their child [tested] positive."
Schools across Taos County have executed Rapid Responses since the start of the school year. Taos High School had seven Rapid Responses, and Taos Middle School had two.
Torrez also reports that, as of Sept. 5, Ranchos Elementary had three Rapid Responses and Enos Garcia Elementary had two. For other schools in the county, Taos Charter School had one, and Roots and Wings, Taos International School and Arroyos Del Norte Elementary reported no Rapid Responses.
The Taos News has requested Rapid Response numbers for Taos Integrated School for the Arts and Anansi Day School, as well as the Peñasco Independent School District and the Questa Independent School District. As of press time, however, administrators at those schools had not responded.
Torrez also reported that TMS district-wide staff had seen four Rapid Responses as of Sept. 5.
New 'tool kit' in use
The New Mexico Public Education Department, along with the New Mexico Department of Health, published a new COVID-19 Response Toolkit for New Mexico's Public Schools on Thursday (Sept. 2). The tool kit is applicable for the 2021-22 school year, and supersedes the previous version.
The 28-page document includes recommendations and guidelines on preparation and response, communication, Rapid Responses, what to report, COVID symptoms, face coverings, surveillance testing, air filtration, best practices for youth sports and more.
The tool kit recommends that each school identify a COVID-19 point person - like the school nurse - to liaise with the NMPED Rapid Response Team.
It also recommends that communications regarding a positive case should be handled quickly and confidentially, and provides schools and districts with sample letters to be sent out in case of a Rapid Response.
The toolkit includes resources for schools including a list of testing sites in the state, CDC cleaning and disinfecting guidance and links to the vaccination registration system.
The Taos Municipal Schools district is working with the New Mexico Department of Health, the New Mexico Public Education Department and Holy Cross Medical Center to continue to provide opportunities for staff and students to receive their COVID vaccine, if they choose.
"Students who are not vaccinated, or choose not to report their vaccination status, are encouraged by NMPED to participate in surveillance testing at least once every four weeks," said Torrez in an Aug. 16 statement.
The district hosted a vaccination clinic in July, with boosters in August, to help students, staff and the community vaccinate. "We were very successful. We had 78 individuals get their COVID vaccines," said Torrez.
The district is gearing up for a second vaccine clinic.