SANTA FE – Public school students in New Mexico will not return to classrooms or athletic fields during the current academic year because of the coronavirus, the state’s top education official announced Friday as the number of cases rose to nearly 200 and more restrictions were announced.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham addressed New Mexicans by social media Friday evening and shared the latest numbers. Another 55 cases have been confirmed, bringing the state’s total to at least 191. That’s double what it was three days ago.
“It means there’s more social distancing that must be done,” Lujan Grisham said.
Of the 17 people hospitalized, the governor said six were receiving critical care or on ventilators. One death was reported earlier in the week.
The infections are concentrated in the Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces areas, with nearly half of the cases related to travel. About 20% involve family members or others who came in contact with those travelers, while another 20% are still under investigation.
About 15% of the cases appear to be community spread.
“That’s the number that gives us real pause,” Lujan Grisham said, noting that one infected person has the potential to spread the virus to as many as 400 people over the course of 30 days and the health care system could become overwhelmed at that rate.
A stay-at-home order is already in effect across New Mexico. And in addition to keeping schools closed, the governor on Friday issued an order requiring air travelers to New Mexico to self-isolate for at least 14 days to help curb the spread. Those who ignore the order will be subject to forced isolation or quarantine by the state Health Department.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart called the decision to extend the classroom shutdown painful. He explained that students are likely to be graded for remote coursework on a pass-fail basis. High school seniors will be able to graduate through a “demonstration of competency” that may feature a series of assignments and tests, including a college entrance exam.
Appearing alongside other state officials, Stewart stressed that school health centers and counseling services will continue to be available with safety precautions, as the state distributes lunches and breakfasts to more than 100,000 children.
“This is not something that we would wish on anybody,” Stewart said. “We are going to stand by our kids even when we are at a social distance.”
He said that rites of spring such as proms and graduation ceremonies should take place, even if they are delayed by several months. Athletics won’t resume before fall.
The state is supporting a “continuous learning” program with between one hour of instructional time a day for first-graders and up to three hours in grades six to 12, as it distributes academic tool kits to families. However, the transition to remote teaching presents daunting challenges in a state that lags behind much of the nation in terms of access to computers and functional internet connections.
The state already has received a waiver from the federal government to suspend requirements for some student academic assessments and minimum annual instructional hours.
In other developments:
The Department of Public Safety announced that cadets at the state law enforcement academy and state police recruits were being sent home Friday. Officials said training will continue once the public health emergency is over.The state Motor Vehicle Division is closing field offices statewide as a health precaution. The state can process vehicle registration and driver’s license renewals online but cannot issue some types of first-time licenses. Privately operated offices for motor vehicle services closed earlier in the week.