Editor’s Note: On Thursday, Aug. 19, the The New Mexico Public Education Department announced changes to its COVID-19 Rapid Response protocols, saying it would no longer require schools to close after four rapid responses in 14 days.

In response, Belen Consolidated Schools made the decision to return to in-person learning at Belen High School on Monday, Aug. 23, earlier than planned. Los Lunas High School will remain on remote learning next week, with students returning to campus on Monday, Aug. 30.

Two local high schools have decided to suspend in-person learning for two weeks to try and nip the spread of COVID-19 among staff and students in the bud.

Both Los Lunas and Belen high schools will be on remote learning until Friday, Aug. 27, with classes resuming in person on Monday, Aug. 30.

Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said the district received a memo from the New Mexico Public Education Department on Monday, Aug. 16, informing them Belen High School was on the COVID-19 rapid response watch list with two responses.

Since the middle of last week, there have been six positive cases of COVID-19 reported at BHS — one staff member and five students. The five student cases were all related, the superintendent said, and considered one rapid response.

Generally speaking, state agencies initiate a rapid response when one or more employees tests positive for COVID-19. Some agencies, including the NMPED, also initiate rapid responses when a student tests positive.

Any organization with two or more rapid responses in the last 14 calendar days is included on the New Mexico Environment Department’s Rapid Response COVID-19 watch list, and four responses can lead to a two-week closure.

“By making this preemptive move, we’re hoping any students who may have contracted COVID will be at home, which allows us to get through this quicker,” Sanchez said. “We decided, ‘Let’s stay home and not spread this.’ We consider this a reset … and hopefully any students with COVID will have the chance to go through it at home.”

The voluntary closure of BHS also means all extra curricular activities have been put on hold for two weeks. Sanchez said his understanding of the rules is any student who has been on the BHS campus and tests positive for COVID counts “against” the district in terms of rapid responses.

“If we allow activities on campus, we are not putting a stop to this. Our goal is to not have this going on for months,” he said. “Five students out of about 1,000 isn’t a high percentage, but that meant almost 200 kids have to be sent home to quarantine as close contacts. If someone is unvaccinated, they have to go home. We erred on the side of caution and sent vaccinated students home, too.”

District wide, about 80 percent of BCS staff are vaccinated, Sanchez said, and at the high school, about 15-20 percent of students are vaccinated. Even before the decision was made to close the school for two weeks, the district was planning to hold vaccine events at BHS and Belen Middle School.

The exact dates of the vaccine events haven’t been set yet, but Sanchez said they are aiming to have them in the week students return to in-person classes.

“We would like to have as many people who want it vaccinated so we don’t have to send people home after close contact,” he said.

Once students return to the campus, remote learning won’t be offered, Sanchez said.

“We don’t have the funds to run a separate, remote academy, and teaching hybrid is not an effective method for either group, live or remote,” he said.

In addition to the BHS cases, there have been two COVID-19 cases at Central Elementary School and one at Belen Family School. Sanchez said there haven’t been any outbreaks at other school sites, and the district will continue watching the case numbers.

“I think doing this will give confidence to parents that we are doing what we can to keep this under control,” Sanchez said. “The procedures (New Mexico Department of Health) has in place seem to be working. If someone doesn’t feel good, they are staying home. It’s when we ignore those procedures, say, ‘Oh it’s smoke or allergies,’ that’s when we get in trouble.”

There have been NMPED rapid responses at five Los Lunas Schools campuses — two at Katherine Gallegos Elementary, four at Sundance Elementary, two at Los Lunas Middle School, four at Los Lunas High School and two at Valencia High School.

Although there were rapid responses at multiple schools, a district press release said all other schools other than Los Lunas High School in the district will remain in-person.

Unlike Belen High School, Los Lunas High will continue their athletics programs and other extracurricular activities in-person despite the students having to attend class remotely.

“My attempt was to try to allow for as many students to be unaffected as possible, so what we did was to make the decision to go remote, but there were some caveats to that,” said Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Arsenio Romero. “Those caveats are we can have small group instruction that really benefits our special education students. We can have small group instruction for some of our labs, even just small group environments for math and language arts. So, that’s a good thing — we can really do some personalized instruction.”

The decision to allow for extracurricular activities to remain in-person was made not only for the benefit of athletics programs in season, such as football, but for all students that engage in school clubs and other school-sponsored activities.

Romero said  out of all high-schoolers enrolled in Los Lunas Schools, only about one-third are vaccinated with a majority of those vaccinated being juniors and seniors.

Over the course of the past two weeks, Los Lunas High School has had 16 positive COVID-19 cases among students and 250 students in close contact, requiring them to be sent home.

“We’re going to try to attempt (remote learning) and see how it will work out,” Romero said. “It is still possible though that we will have positive cases that pop up.

“What’s happening is that we will have less opportunity because there are fewer people, so I’m hoping that if we do our due diligence and really work hard to keep these environments somewhat protected, that’ll help.”

Romero said while in talks with New Mexico Public Education Sec. Kurt Steinhaus, he learned PED is moving away from the rapid response model to address COVID-19 cases in schools towards a more personalized approach.

“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, LLS will take a more personalized approach to address the COVID-19 cases popping up at Sundance Elementary, hoping to keep as many students in the classroom with their teachers as possible, according to Romero.

As of Tuesday, Sundance recorded seven positive cases among kindergarten and the after-school programs with 44 students quarantined due to close contact. Romero decided to close the after-school program at Sundance Elementary, and transition kindergarten classes to remote learning until Aug. 30. No other classes will be affected.

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

On Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the state will temporarily re-implement a statewide requirement that facemasks be worn in all public indoor spaces, with only limited exceptions, and regardless of vaccination status, to stem the state’s rising tide of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

The indoor mask requirement will be effective Friday, Aug. 20. It will remain in effect until at least Sept. 15.

The state also issued a requirement that all workers at private, public and charter schools in New Mexico either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or otherwise submit to COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis. This policy aligns with the state’s requirement for all state government personnel.

“We all have a role to play,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “No one wants to go backward. No one wants to see our recovery endangered by another — and preventable — surge of serious illness. No one wants a full hospital turning away New Mexicans who need care. So mask up indoors to stop the spread. And vaccinate if you haven’t vaccinated. These two simple steps will protect our health care resources and ensure our economy can continue to rebound.”

Given the slowing of vaccination rates since a peak several months ago, the governor also announced the state will issue a requirement for all workers in certain medical close-contact congregate settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, juvenile justice facilities, rehabilitation facilities, state correctional facilities and more, to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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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.