The New Mexico Public Education Department announced changes to its COVID-19 Rapid Response protocols Thursday, Aug. 19, meaning some local high school students will return to campus earlier than anticipated.

Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said Belen High School students will return to in-person learning on Monday, Aug. 23, a week earlier than planned. Los Lunas High School will continue to be closed through Monday, Aug. 30, with activities and athletic practices and games continuing as planned.

NMPED will no longer require schools to close after getting four rapid responses in 14 days, but will instead “work with schools to implement enhanced COVID-safe practices that will maintain in-person learning as much as possible,” according to a recent press release.

Both BHS and LLHS called for a voluntary, two-week closure of their campuses starting Monday, Aug. 16. Students at both schools were due to return to in-person learning on Monday, Aug. 30.

“The PED language, to us, was along the lines of, districts can managed their responses to positive cases as long as they can demonstrate they’re following COVID-safe practices,” Sanchez said. “We will be doing that. None of us wants our students to get sick.”

COVID-safe practices include required masks for all students, staff and visitors at public schools while indoors, except when eating and drinking, and the recommendation for masks while outdoors, regular hand washing and surface sanitizing, and physical distancing between people to the greatest extend possible.

“Our medical advisors have noted that schools currently are not hotbeds of COVID-19 infections,” NMPED Sec. Designate Kurt Steinhaus said in the press release. “At this point, we are not closing schools. The caveat is that the virus could change things, but we need to do what’s best for kids, which is to keep in-person learning to the extent possible.”

Athletic practice and other activities will resume at BHS on Monday, Aug. 30. Practices, games and activities were previously suspended for the two weeks the campus was closed, and most of the upcoming games for next week, said BCS athletic coordinator Joshua Griñe.

The only competition next will be Belen Eagle football at Farmington on Friday, Aug. 27.

Most of the other BHS sports teams rescheduled their games and bus reservations, Griñe said, but the football team kept their reservations and game time in place, just in case things changed. Other sports will pick up games later in the season, if the opportunity presents itself, the coordinator said.

Griñe said he was relieved by the early return of students to the BHS campus.

“You come into this job the first year looking forward to having athletics, so the decision to come back early and have kids on campus participating in athletics and doing it in a safe way is a relief,” he said.

The coordinator said he was in a district leadership meeting with all the site principals and the superintendent when word came down from PED about the new guidelines.

“Everyone voted in favor of resuming all activities, so it was kind of a unanimous decision to restart everything,” Griñe said.

Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Arsenio Romero said students at Los Lunas High School will remain in remote learning, returning to campus on Monday, Aug. 30, as planned. After the revised guidelines from PED were publically announced, Romero told the News-Bulletin PED had already approved the plan for LLHS with the revised guidelines in mind.

With the changes to how districts can respond to COIVD-19 cases among students, Romero said LLS will take a more personalized approach, with different schools addressing cases differently.

“Every situation that we have, it’s going to be a little bit of a different response based on the needs of that school and how things are rolling out,” Romero said.

For example, at Sundance Elementary, one wing of the school containing three kindergarten classrooms, one PreK classroom and the primary playground closed for seven school days starting Thursday, Aug. 19. Those students will be in remote learning until Monday, Aug. 30.

In addition, the school’s before and after school program, Project Keys, is closed until Aug. 30. The school reported seven positive cases among kindergartners and students in the after-school programs as of Tuesday, Aug. 17, with 44 students quarantined due to close contact.

Additionally, the pod system practiced during the last school year will again be implemented at the elementary school and middle school levels in LLS.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.

Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history.