The district’s school board held a special meeting Monday, November 23 to discuss and vote on the status of and plan for going forward with the hybrid/remote instructional status for the district’s schools. The meeting was called as COVID-19 cases were rapidly rising across the state and questions were being asked about the future status of public schools statewide as the end of the first semester was approaching.
The meeting was held in light of remarks made a week earlier by New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) head, Secretary Ryan Stewart. In a press conference call, Stewart emphasized that “all school districts across the state could be required to return to full 100 percent remote learning if the spread rate of COVID-19 cases continues at its current pace.” Since that time, the number of cases and testing positivity rate has continued to climb. Several school districts across the state have switched to full remote learning, including Rio Rancho, Alamogordo, Santa Fe and Farmington since Stewart’s November 16 statements.
With that as the backdrop, the meeting began with Dr. Segura presenting a detailed look at the data, compiled to be up to date as of November 23, the afternoon of the meeting. At that time, Sierra County had documented 276 positive cases of COVID-19 with three deaths, for a fatality rate of 1.1 percent. Our testing positivity rate was at 9.9 percent for the two-week period between October 27 to November 9. Sierra Vista Hospital reported they were not near capacity, though cited some concerns about having enough trained staff to meet increased caseloads.
Dr. Segura reported that from August to date there have been 22 positive student cases and six positive staff cases. These include any student or staff, regardless where the source of contact and acquiring COVID-19 had originated.
The The NMPED guidance is that if there are four rapid responses at a school in a two week period, that school will be closed until the entire county reaches the “Level Green.” In the four months since schools open, there have been in total, only two rapid responses, one in September at SEC and the second one at T-or-C Middle School (TCMS) in November.
After taking a detailed look at the data, numbers rates and responses at state, county and school district levels, Dr. Segura detailed the considerations for the board to discuss, as well as her own recommendations. Over 23 points, summarizing the data and the current conditions, restrictions and guidelines were presented to the board. These included the district’s current status in responding to the pandemic and state’s restrictions. The maintenance department has supplies of face masks and shields, gloves, and disinfectants, cleaning agents and sanitizer in stock for all staff and school needs. The air filtration systems in the schools have been upgraded from MERV-5 to MERV-11 filters, with MERV-13 filters on order. Of 89 school districts in the state, we are one of 25 that is operating in an approved hybrid model.
Other factors that Dr. Segura stressed the importance of for the board to consider included the lack of adequate internet access for all students. This of course, is key for remote learning. Also impacting this is that the district is still awaiting delivery of approximately 600 laptop computers, ordered July 1, that will be distributed to students in grades 8-12.
Another issue of vital importance presented was the impact on emotional and mental health of our students, isolated and disconnected from the schools through remote learning. Many students are struggling academically as well as socially and emotionally. The increase in anxiety, depression, abuse and neglect and even suicide were considerations that Dr. Segura stressed the importance of to the board. Having a stable learning environment, in addition to the impact schools have on so many other aspects of student well-being are factors that cannot be over emphasized.
The lack of adequate childcare options in Sierra County was another factor considered.
Also to be weighed were concerns of health risk to teachers and other staff many of whom have underlying health considerations.
After thoroughly discussing the data and considerations, Dr. Segura stated her personal preference was to have students in school, to keep the doors of education open as wide as possible for as many students as possible.
Dr. Segura then presented her recommendations to the board:
• The district remains in the Hybrid Model for our elementary school students unless there is a statewide decision to shift to 100 percent remote learning for all students.
•The district continues to serve our Special Education program in the allowed pods of 5:1 students to teachers in grades pre-K to 12. Again, until and unless the Governor mandates a shift to full 100 percent remote learning for all.
•The district continues to serve students who do not have internet access in the Resource Rooms, one at each school, in the same 5:1 pods.
•The district close schools for two-week periods as necessary given rates of positivity, rates of spread and staff needed to facilitate in-person teaching and learning at each individual school.
•The district continues surveillance testing in the hybrid settings.
•The district begins to send weekly updates to all staff to increase transparency, while adhering to FERPA laws.
•The district shifts for two weeks into a 100 percent remote learning “reset” for all students and staff at all schools after the winter break (January 4-19), this would be for eight instructional days, to allow for a 14-day isolation period. This is recommended due to potential large family/friend gatherings over the holidays, Christmas and New Year’s.
•That during this two-week post winter break isolation period the district provide for meal distribution for all students. Meals would be distributed Monday, Tuesday Thursday and Friday on the two weeks at all the locations used in the summer meals program. 1. 8:15-11 a.m. at both the HSHS cafeteria and Arrey Elementary. 2. 9:15-10:15 at the Sierra County Fair Barn, Flea Market Parking Lot at Broadway and Mercury, and at Sixth Street and Coleman.
•The district continues to monitor the data weekly and speak to key stakeholders to inform decision-making.
•We are all in this together, and we need to work together, to do what is best for the students of our Truth or Consequences District. It is not only the schools’ responsibility to keep our students safe, but also that of our entire community, every family, every individual. If your child is sick, then get them tested and keep him/her isolated at home for 14 days. If a household member is sick, have them tested and isolate and keep your child safe at home until you receive a negative test result.
The board’s discussion was brief and very much to the point. “I like what you came up with,” said board vice president Doug Whitehead. “It covers everything we had concerns with.” Board secretary and outgoing member Crystal Diamond commended r Segura on the job she has been doing, as well as the district’s staff. “I want to really thank Nurse Lara Clement who really rose to the challenge, she’s remarkable. Also the teachers who are making the process work, being diligent and keeping our kids engaged in education.”
In the end, the board voted unanimously to accept and institute the recommendations made by Dr. Segura.
Board president Brett Smith summed up what many were thinking. “All we can do is just do the best we can to make it work. I want to see kids in school, but we have to go with what we can. My heart goes out to our kids, they are what this is all about. It’s the kids that matter.”