Jan. 21—While daily counts of COVID-19 cases continued to set records this week in Santa Fe and across New Mexico, the number of infected among public school students and staff in the city declined as classes went remote.
Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez cited the drop — to an average of 30 cases a day from 80 to 90 in early January — as a sign it's time to reopen classrooms.
He announced Thursday the district will return to in-person classes Monday after shifting to remote learning for four days this week.
Chavez also said the state Public Education Department's contractor for COVID-19 testing services, Premier Medical Group, now has a "sufficient" supply of rapid antigen tests. Previously, test supplies and staffing had been falling short, making it impossible for the district to keep up with demand under a state-mandated program that requires unvaccinated students and staff exposed to the virus to undergo testing to remain in schools.
As COVID-19 cases within the district — and in the general population statewide — reached unseen levels and led to high numbers of absent students and teachers, Chavez announced last week the temporary shift to remote learning. He also noted the lack of sufficient coronavirus testing.
At the time, Chavez said the district would reopen campuses Jan. 24 "if conditions improve."
His announcement Thursday indicates they have.
"While we are continuing to see large numbers of vacancies due to COVID related absences, we will continue to make the best decisions possible with the tools at hand and will pivot if necessary when new information becomes available," he said in a news release Thursday.
Monte del Sol Charter School, which enacted a remote learning period as well, also will return to classrooms Monday.
The decision to reopen schools comes a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced at a news conference at Santa Fe High School the state was recruiting its own workers and New Mexico National Guard members to begin volunteering as substitute teachers in strained public schools statewide. The initiative could be launched as early as Monday, she said.
The New Mexico Public Education Department had received 63 applications by Thursday evening from those hoping to help fulfill Lujan Grisham's plan. Eighteen of them were already licensed and ready, the agency said. Chavez said he was unsure Thursday if any of those volunteers would be in Santa Fe Public Schools on Monday morning. He has said the district needs about 85 additional substitute teachers to keep schools adequately staffed. Teacher and staff absentees due to COVID-19 infections and exposures have added to a crisis-level worker shortage in the district.
To fill the gaps, the district likely will rely on a mix of state volunteers, Guard members and community members. Chavez said some Santa Fe residents have reached out with an interest in substitute teaching.
"We've received independent inquiries from community members to become licensed," he said. "I think the message has been heard by our community."
Still, Chavez expects some schools to continue relying on "internet hubs" in common spaces. Students from classrooms with absent teachers or unfilled positions are combined in the hub, which is monitored by staff. Some administrators and other staff also will continue overseeing classes with no teachers or subs during their free periods.
"I don't think we can ever have enough teachers or substitutes," Chavez said. "We're going to have plans in place to address those kinds of issues."
The district released its plan to return to in-person learning shortly before state health officials reported more than 6,000 new infections Thursday in a record-breaking one-day count — including 515 in Santa Fe County. The state saw 24 more coronavirus-related deaths, and hospitalizations for treatment of the illness rose to over 700, the highest level in more than a month.
Interim Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase predicted Wednesday the recent surge, due to the fast-spreading omicron variant, might peak in New Mexico between Jan. 27 and Feb. 2 — meaning cases are likely to continue soaring to new record counts until then.
Grace Mayer, president of the National Education Association of Santa Fe, had a mixed reaction to the district's decision to reopen schools so rapidly.
"I don't believe everybody is confident that the numbers are low enough to return and that we have the number of teachers available to be in place to deal with the students coming back in person," she said.
The union recently asked the district to consider a hybrid model, with remote learning on Fridays, in part to ease the burden on overworked teachers who have been filling in for infected colleagues and taking on extra classes with teacher vacancies.
When students return Monday, Santa Fe Public Schools will begin following guidance from the Public Education Department that calls for reducing self-isolation and quarantine periods for people who test positive for COVID-19 and those who may have been exposed, requiring five days of isolation instead of 10.
Several other measures also will be in place:
—The district is encouraging students and staff to wear three-ply disposable face masks or KN95 masks, which are available at all schools.
—Students who are unvaccinated and have been in close contact with someone who is infected will undergo testing Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to stay in school under the state's Test to Stay program. Otherwise, they will be required to quarantine for five days.
—Schools in which 5 percent or more of the students and staff test positive might see individual classroom closures or outdoor masking requirements, Chavez said, as part of an enhanced COVID-19 safety plan.
—Tutoring will remain available to all elementary students in quarantine Monday through Thursday.
"We're trying to ensure we have everything in place, to not only return on Monday, but keep in person going throughout the second semester," Chavez said.