COVID-19

N.M. Public Education Department unveils plan to reopen schools in fall

Masks required, daily screening, half capacity in classrooms

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On Tuesday (June 23) the New Mexico Public Education Department released its guidelines for allowing K-12 students back into the classrooms for the first time since March, when schools across the state were shut down for in-person attendance after the outbreak of a highly infectious novel coronavirus.

Students and teachers beginning on Aug. 3 will be allowed back into classrooms, but with a much different routine than ever before.

PED is recommending what it calls "hybrid learning" in which some students go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and others attend on Thursdays and Fridays; Wednesdays is a recommended sanitation day for the school buildings and a day for remote learning for all students.

However, the schedule of in-person and remote learning can be tinkered with by school districts to suit the needs of the community, so long as health and safety protocols set forth by the New Mexico Department of Health are followed, according to the state's plan.

Under the state plan:

• Staff, daily, will be screened for COVID-19 – which includes temperature checks and checking for any potential symptoms.

• Attendance will be limited to 50 percent capacity per classroom.

• Face masks will be required for everyone in the school building and for students on buses, though in some cases, for medical reasons, exceptions can be made.

• Masks can be taken off "while eating, drinking and exercising," according to the NMPED.

The NMDOH will help assess the spread of COVID-19 and help guide schools with what actions should be taken next if an outbreak occurs.

While the NMPED recommended its hybrid schedule, Peñasco Independent School District superintendent Lisa Hamilton said that the district hasn't decided yet how to put the plan into practice.

"We have not made decisions about the model," Hamilton said. "Starting next week we will convene a task force composed of teachers, parents, administrators, food service, maintenance, bus drivers and IT staff to discuss and plan the reentry model."

Taos Municipal Schools superintendent Lillian Torrez said that the district had created a "Reopening Task Force" about a month ago "composed of parents, health professionals, educators and community members to develop several plans from the continuation of online learning, blended learning options to a regular back to school." She said that the process is still ongoing, and that on Thursday (June 25) parents of students will be receiving a survey about different learning options.

Torrez said that TMS has found a variety of different scheduling models to fit the needs of the community. "These plans transition from total online learning to a blended option all the way to a normal setting," Torrez said. "Modifying school schedules and calendars to account for lost instructional time and to ensure ongoing health and safety efforts, such as social distancing at all times."

For remote learning, the NMPED is asking that districts use money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) or other funds to make sure each student has a device and internet access for remote learning.

Torrez said that TMS had already helped students access the internet online last semester through "community partnerships, Kit Carson community access points and district-provided portable wireless devices," such as hot spots. She says that the district will continue to do so through next school year, and that "each student will have a computer and internet connection in their home before school starts."

Peñasco Independent School District had already purchased Chromebooks in March and plans to deploy them to students in grades 1-12, and Kindle tablets for kindergartners, according to Hamilton. She said that the money used to purchase the devices for students came from gross receipts tax funds designated for the district.

As for students with no internet access at home, Hamilton said, "we will use CARES Act funds in conjunction with support from other sources such as Kit Carson and the Internet Disaster Resource Center to support internet connectivity issues."

Hamilton said that the district has purchased equipment to "expand the Wi-Fi on campus" as well, so that students and teachers can also "access the internet outside the buildings or in their cars."

Some in the education community worry about the loss of learning for some students as schools were canceled earlier this year.

Hamilton said that the students in the Peñasco school district will have "extra support staff for students with learning differences" because of that very reason. While remote learning can be a challenge, PISD has been prepping for this moment as staff has been training to "improve online instruction," Hamilton said.

TMS will address the help students need through this new way of learning -- especially those with learning disabilities -- "by implementing and analyzing need assessment data to select and guide curriculum and instruction, especially in targeting resources and additional support for students most impacted by the COVID-19 school closures," Torrez said.

TMS has been prepping for online learning -- or a mix of both online and in-person classes -- by developing an online curriculum based around the hard copy curriculum already in place, Torrez said. Melissa Sandoval, TMS assistant superintendent, is leading the charge on that front, Torrez said.

For younger students who can't be left at home while their parents are at work, Torrez said that TMS survey sent out to parents and staff will address the needs of "return to school plans."

"With a completed needs assessment, the district will work with community partners to offer recommendations to families in need of child care for the fall," Torrez said.

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