Everyone’s bell was rung when New Mexico’s Public Education secretary announced schools across the state had to be fully open for all students wanting in-person learning by April 5.

“We’re excited to ring the bell and welcome students fully back to school physically,” said PED Secretary Ryan Stewart during a Facebook Live press conference Monday afternoon.

PED defines full reentry as all students having the option to return to school for in-person learning each school day, meaning students won’t have to be broken into cohorts or limited to the number of students allowed on campus.

Stewart said school staff and students will still have to adhere to COVID-safe practices, including wearing masks and other hygiene requirements. However, the requirement for 6 feet of physical distance between people has been relaxed and those on campus will be asked to practice social distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” the secretary said.

Students don’t have to return to campuses and will be able to continue remote learning, he said, but schools must be fully open for in-person classes by April 5.

“Air quality requirements are still in effect. I feel we have the strongest indoor air quality standards in the country,” Stewart said.

The rapid change to in-person learning also strips away restrictions for student-athletes, eliminating the two-week transition practice period and opens up participation in other New Mexico Activities Association sanctioned activities, such as marching band.

“NMAA-sanctioned activities — sports, music, band and choir — may go at all schools effective immediately,” Stewart said. “All sports may resume without the previous two week period and spectators may attend in line with the limits for large entertainment venues.”

Stewart said any student who tests positive for COVID-19 will have to quarantine and be cleared to return to activities. In addition, anyone they had close contact with will also have to quarantine, but games and activities can continue.

Music, singing and wind instrument performances will be allowed outdoors only, and indoor activities of that nature will be limited to individual practice sessions in practice rooms, the secretary said.

Wind instruments will be required to have bell covers to prevent the spread of aerosols and performers will have to remain 9 feet apart.

Stewart said meals for students will be served outside to the greatest extent possible.

“The question is, ‘When does my school open?’ That is a local decision,” he said. “The expectation is that every single school will be open for every student who wants in-person learning by April 5.”

Local public school leaders say they will comply with PED’s order to fully open, with both Los Lunas Schools and Belen Consolidated Schools making that full change on Tuesday, April 6.

Mike Ogas, superintendent at School of Dreams Academy, the county’s only charter school, said the school will open and is already making plans on how that is going to happen.

“We are moving forward with what PED is asking us to do. We’re going to have a governing council meeting … to discuss it more,” Ogas said. “We may have one or two more meetings of the governing council and administration and staff within the next two or three weeks to make this happen.”

Los Lunas Superintendent Arsenio Romero said the district will be moving toward a full re-entry model. Starting the week of March 29, schools will be creating a re-orientation schedule for students.

“This will allow for students to learn our COVID-19 safe practices, allow for teachers and students to build relationships, and learn about the upcoming instructional schedules that each school site will be offering,” Romero said. “Starting April 6, students will be back on campus for full day, in-person learning. Families may continue to participate in virtual learning if they choose to do so.”

The district’s last day of classes is set for May 26, with graduation ceremonies set for Los Lunas and Valencia high schools on May 22.

Next steps for Belen Consolidated Schools include making sure the supply of PPE and cleaning products is sufficient and hiring back bus drivers, Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said.

“When we were planning for hybrid; we had a certain number of students who would be on campus. With going five days a week, I think we’ll see a lot more kids come back,” Sanchez said. “We are checking our inventory and upping our order as we speak.”

Sanchez said the district will also take this next month to hire bus drivers.

“When we were looking at routes for cohorts, we didn’t have the same amount of routes,” he said. “We haven’t let any drivers go, but when someone left we didn’t replace them. We have to get drivers hired and trained.”

This week, Belen High School students did remote lessons in the morning and went to in-person acclimation events on campus in the afternoon.

Infinity High School, Belen Middle School and BHS will begin hybrid learning on March 22, as planned, and all schools will be fully open on April 6. The district’s spring break is March 15-19.

Sanchez said activities, such as prom and graduation, are still under advisement, but based on the new criteria, the district could have it’s traditional outdoor graduation ceremony for BHS with spectators at 25 percent capacity.

“If we are green, that number would be different,” Sanchez said.

Classes for BCS will continue through mid June, Sanchez said, with Belen High School’s graduation set for May 18 and Infinity High’s for May 15.

Stewart said while students can continue learning remotely, teachers will be returning to the classrooms. Any medical exemptions for high-risk staff will remain in place until two weeks after the inoculation, then teachers will need to negotiate with their employer as to whether they can continue working remotely.

“In the next few weeks, every staffer who wants one will begin being vaccinated,” the secretary said.

In keeping with a White House directive, New Mexico will offer first shots to educators during an approximate three-week period:

• Beginning March 8: Educators and early childhood professionals outside the Albuquerque metro area who are already registered

• Beginning March 15: Educators and EC professionals within the Albuquerque metro area who are already registered

• Beginning March 22: Educators and EC professionals who register for vaccine in the interim or who have not yet been vaccinated

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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.