Most Taos County schools and districts are in what the New Mexico Public Education Department calls the "green zone," which is a label for those that have reentry plans approved by the state and are in counties that have a low coronavirus test positivity rate by average daily cases per 100,000.

Currently, Taos County has a test positivity rate below 5 percent and the average daily count per 100,000 is below eight cases, which is recommended for reentry by PED. That means that schools – both charter and public – are able to send elementary kids back into the classroom starting this week, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

But most charter schools and districts in the county, however, will not be doing a hybrid model of in-class and online learning but instead will stick with remote learning for now.

Taos Municipal Schools – the largest school district in the county – in late August had its school board vote unanimously in favor of extending remote learning through the end of the first quarter, in mid-October.

Vista Grande High School, Taos Charter School and Anansi Charter School all had approved reentry plans, though they are all considered district charters, which means that "those locally chartered public schools operate under the jurisdiction of the local school district," according to the PED.

Questa Independent School District's school board voted in favor of extending remote learning through the end of the first quarter, too, which ends on Oct. 8. Questa, like the TMS district, also had an approved reentry plan, according to PED.

Peñasco Independent School District, however, was not on the PED's list for approved reentry.

Though Peñasco ISD resides in Taos County – which sits in the green zone for testing rates – the reentry form for the district was submitted on Sept. 3, a day before the list was approved by PED, according to superintendent Lisa Hamilton.

Extended remote learning

State-sanctioned charter schools in Taos County – such as Red River Valley Charter School, Roots and Wings Community School, Taos Integrated School of the Arts, Taos Academy and Taos International – were all also on the approved list for reentry.

Red River Valley Charter School and Taos Academy didn't respond to a request for comment by press time (Sept. 9).

Taos International School – grades K-8 – will be extending remote learning through the end of the first quarter. Head administrator Nadine Vigil said that the school is following suit with the TMS district since some kids in the school also have siblings who attend a public school in the school district. Remote learning was approved by the governing board, Vigil said.

"Our reentry plan has been approved but we decided to go through [the end of the first quarter]," Vigil said. "A reason being is that we have some students whose siblings go to Taos schools."

Roots and Wings Community School in Questa – grades K-8 – will be in a remote learning setting still for the time being. Jon Orris, the school's director, said that "we told parents we would evaluate the situation after Labor Day" and that the school would give "them a two weeks heads up on it."

Orris said that even though the school was approved for reentry, on Friday (Sept. 4) the PED sent out a toolkit which had a list of demands for reopening, like certain filters for HVAC systems, which the school will now have to look into.

"Basically we are not rushing to get into a hybrid [schedule]," Orris said.

Insurance question

As for Taos Integrated School of the Arts, school director Richard Greywolf said that remote learning will continue through October and that, right now, he doesn't have a date that the school is looking at for heading back to the classroom.

Like Roots and Wings Community School, Greywolf said the PED's toolkit sent out to schools and districts on Friday had also hampered any plans TISA had for early hybrid reentry. MERV 13 filters, which the NMPED recommends for schools, are in high demand and are not available for purchase until the end of October, Greywolf said.

He also mentioned that TISA's insurance company said that it won't cover the school if it is sued for a possible COVID case that may pop up.

"They made a statement that they can refuse not to cover us if we get sued over COVID-19 if they feel we have violated health codes," Greywolf said.

Lack of internet

PED secretary Ryan Stewart on Thursday (Sept. 3) said that the department is working with schools and districts around the state to prioritize getting younger students into the classroom first because "we know those are often the students where the remote program can be the hardest, both as they learn to read, and also when we think about the issues around attention span and being in front of a computer all day."

PISD, which has opted to extend remote learning, has had troubles with getting help from the state in relation to internet access.

Peñasco ISD community schools coordinator Michael Noll said that around 17-20 percent of students don't have home internet access and that since it is a rural community, it is "severely limited by lack of infrastructure" and cost.

"We've been working with Kit Carson to supply access, and they are offering free installation for the first 150 feet and reduced monthly fees, but it takes several weeks to get installation, which puts our students at a loss until then," Noll said. "Also, some families live a long distance from the nearest existing KC internet line, and so they're faced with significant installation costs."

Planning for outbreaks

While schools here in Taos County aren't heading back right away, PED has laid out a plan for how a school with a COVID case will operate.

If an outbreak is localized to a classroom, then students and staff in that classroom will have to quarantine for 14 days at home and that classroom will need to be thoroughly disinfected.

If an outbreak occurs schoolwide, then the school will be shut down to be disinfected – and students will be quarantined and will move back to remote learning.

Stewart on Thursday (Sept. 3) said he wasn't sure which schools in the state plan on opening up right after Labor Day – the earliest date students can head back to the classroom.

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