Since Carlsbad Municipal Schools returned to in-person learning on March 29, hundreds of students were quarantined after potential exposure to COVID-19, about year after the pandemic first struck New Mexico and led to districts throughout the state shifting to virtual classes.
Superintendent Gerry Washburn said a total of 733 students were placed on quarantine, about 8.4 percent of the 8,660 students in the district, per the National Center for Education Statistics.
There were 19 confirmed student cases of COVID-19 since the return to full, in-person learning – eight in elementary school, four in middle school and seven in high school.
Meanwhile, 25 staff members were quarantined since March 29, with four confirmed cases.
Washburn said the quarantines “come and go,” meaning the current number is much lower than the total reported since in-person classes resume.
And the District hasn’t seen any school closures, he said, which can be triggered if a school reports four cases within a 14-day period.
“I was worried when I talked to the board that our case counts were nudging up,” he said. “We’ve done a real good job of quickly identifying all the kids who have been exposed. We’ve been able to respond to those and minimize the impact of the cases we did have.”
The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) reported it closed El Dorado High School in Albuquerque when it reached the threshold on April 10, which also applies to businesses in New Mexico.
And on April 13, PED announced three schools – Mesa Alta Junior High and Central Primary in Bloomfield and Socorro High School – voluntarily closed in response to rising numbers.
The Department also announced New Mexico schools will be given the option to offer free COVID-19 testing to students starting April 26, with the goal of voluntarily testing 1 percent of students statewide each week.
“This will help build public confidence that schools are safe,” said Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said.
“By testing student volunteers, we can get better information about what’s happening in schools with the virus and get communication out into the community about how our precautionary measures are working.”
Carlsbad schools were prepared for a potential rise in cases, Washburn said, as the District looked to minimize impacts from potential infections.
“Across the state you have entire schools shutting down because they weren’t prepared. We’ve done a real good job with that and I’m happy with where we’re at,” he said. “We don’t have any schools in danger of being closed.”
In the Village of Loving, Principal of Loving High School Catherine Bass announced high school students would all return to remote learning, as the school was alerted to a “person who was at our school” who tested positive for the virus. In an April 22 Facebook post, Bass said the school would undergo the required 10 quarantine as the district worked with PED and the Department of Health.
But with the increase caseloads in Eddy County leading the state to impose stricter COVID-19 restrictions, moving the county back into the “yellow” designation for danger of infection, Washburn said sporting events and graduation could affected.
The “yellow” designation means no fans can attend indoor events, including football games and graduation ceremonies, he said.
“The only impact to us of going to yellow is starting Monday we won’t be able to have fans indoors at games,” Washburn said. “If we stay in yellow until graduation, then we wont be able to have an indoor graduation with anyone present.”
Rising cases mean COVID-19 restrictions return
Eddy County was in the “turquoise” category until the state’s latest update this week, achieved by having a positive test rate below 5 percent and an average daily case less than eight per 100,00 residents and holding steady for two weeks.
Meeting both criteria puts a county in “green” and then “turquoise” after an additional 14 days, and meeting one requirement results in a “yellow” designation.
Per the latest numbers from the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH), Eddy County had 9 cases per capita and a test positivity rate of 2.8 percent.
If the numbers exceed both criteria, the county will shift into “red” which entails the state’s strictest restrictions.
Graduation and prom could still be held outdoors, he said, with COVID-19 protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing in place.
“We’re pushing out an appeal to our staff, families and community to get vaccinated,” Washburn said. “They might change the rules based on vaccinations. We want our kids to be able to have an in-person graduation with anyone who wants to attend to be in it.”
The key to lowering COVID-19 numbers and the lifting of restrictions, Washburn said, is for residents to get vaccinated.
On April 5, the NMDOH expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 or older as part of the second phase of its distribution plan.
The Department said it will continue to prioritize adults 75 or older or 60 or older with chronic conditions and expected a “meaningful” increase in vaccine supplies throughout the month.
Cabinet Secretary Tracie Collins said the move was directly tied to national direction from President Joe Biden, as the federal government hopes to see increased vaccinations across the nation.
“President Biden directed states to make all adults eligible for vaccine by May 1. New Mexico will hit that target nearly a month early,” Collins said.
Adding to the push for lowering numbers ahead of graduation, Washburn said seniors could be offered the option of switching to remote-only which could lower case counts and increase the likelihood of an in-person ceremony.
“We want them to be able to walk across the stage and get their diploma,” he said. “We’re navigating that. I have to see the glass as half full and getting fuller.”
Throughout more than a year of changing case counts and regulations, Washburn worried that the constant fluctuations from in-person to remote and back again could take a psychological toll on students often left without the emotional support of their friends and teachers when forced to learn from home.
The next academic year will likely need to be extended, he said, to account for lost days amid the pandemic, and the District is working to ensure the proper counseling and support is available.
“The absence of a social emotional support network for kids is what I’m most worried about. We don’t know what kind of trauma these kids are carrying around what those impacts might be,” he said.
“We’re probably going to have an extended school year, so we need to get those supports in place. We need to figure out how much of it is academic and how much of it is emotional.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.