New Mexico governor opts for online start to the school year

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday hit the pause button on reopening public schools this fall, meaning classes will be virtual at least through Sept. 7.

State public education officials initially proposed a hybrid plan combining in-person classroom time with remote online learning, but the governor said during a briefing that the rates of spread and positivity for the coronavirus are just too high right now.

The governor pointed to an additional 343 COVID-19 cases that were reported by state health officials Thursday, saying that marks New Mexico's all-time daily high since the pandemic started.

The statewide case total now stands at 18,163, and officials are concerned that the seven-day average for positive cases has more than doubled in the last five weeks.

"The data that we have about what’s happening with COVID in the state of New Mexico is far too problematic to allow for in-person education," she said, noting that things will only change if people start reducing their movements, wearing masks and keeping their distance from others.

If things improve, the state plans to roll out its hybrid plan after the Labor Day holiday by bringing back the youngest students first, followed by middle schoolers and then high school students. The goal, the governor said, is to have all students back in the classroom at some point.

Districts and charter schools representing more than 40% of the state’s students already had requested a virtual start to the school year, including the largest district in New Mexico, where administrators with Albuquerque Public Schools on Thursday reached an agreement with a teachers union regarding the start of classes at the pandemic persists.

The district said the understanding acknowledges the importance of in-person learning for students but that significant health and safety concerns remain.

Lujan Grisham's administration has promised “a safe and methodical re-entry" to schools, with the governor reiterating that the state has to go slow because the risks are big because the uptick in COVID-19 cases involves a higher percentage of younger people, particularly in the 10 to 19 age range.

There are two exceptions to the governor's plan. Students with special needs and those in grades kindergarten through third grade who have the most learning needs could meet one-on-one with teachers or in small groups.

School districts last week submitted their plans for the start of the school year to the state Public Education Department. Those plans are still being reviewed, but state officials acknowledge that 40% of parents believe it's not safe for their kids to go back.

A coalition of Latino advocacy groups on Wednesday released the results of their own survey, showing that Latino parents have serious concerns about their children spending too much time away from school or not learning enough from on-line schooling. More than 80% of the 480 parents who were queried in June said they were very concerned about their children falling behind, with math being the subject of greatest concern.

Many of the families said the lack of internet access was a problem in the spring after schools were forced to close and districts shifted to remote learning.

Native American parents and other advocacy groups have voiced similar concerns.

State officials indicated that federal coronavirus relief funding could help districts with their infrastructure needs and that more money could be freed up for broadband access. However, the governor acknowledge that education will be expensive in a COVID-19 environment and that those improvements won't come overnight.

Under the Albuquerque school district agreement, teachers and staff will have the option of working from home when guidelines outlined by the state are met.

District officials say training, planning, meetings and teaching will all take place online during the first few weeks of school, though teachers may choose to work in their classrooms and meet in small groups as long as they abide by statewide public health orders. That includes wearing masks.

The school district will provide employees with masks, extra cleaning supplies for their classrooms, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment.

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