ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Only a couple of school districts and a handful of individual schools in New Mexico are pausing in-person learning for a week amid rising COVID-19 cases as state health officials remain hopeful that the latest surge brought on by the omicron variant will begin to ease within a month.
New Mexico’s largest districts have plans aimed at keeping kids in the classroom this semester, and top health officials said during a briefing Wednesday that the classroom is probably the safest place for children given that it’s an environment where they have to wear masks and keep their distance from one another.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase acknowledged that given the experience of other states, the challenge might be staffing shortages that could force schools to return to remote learning until the peak is over.
“If omicron is as narrow a peak as we’re hoping it is, that could be four to six weeks. And if we can get to the other side of it, that would be good,” he said.
Like other states, New Mexico is seeing more cases due to the contagious nature of the omicron variant and Scrase said the potential effect on schools is a constant topic during the state’s planning and modeling meetings.
He added that New Mexico schools have a test-to-stay program and availability is a concern given the recent rush on tests.
Few school districts offered testing on campus at the beginning of the fall semester, but some now offer them every weekday, including many schools in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico.
“Our goal is to keep schools open and keep kids in school,” Las Cruces Deputy Superintendent Gabe Jacquez said at a school board presentation Wednesday.
The state’s largest school districts like Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces remain near or at full capacity for in-person learning. Officials have said case counts among students remain low compared to last spring when school reopened and few students were vaccinated.
Now, state data shows 17% of 5 to 11-year-olds and more than 57% of those 12 to 17 have completed their primary vaccination series. Overall, nearly 65% of all New Mexicans are vaccinated and more than 579,800 residents 16 and older have received boosters.
Jacquez said that in the county surrounding Las Cruces, more than one-third of children and around 80% of adults are fully vaccinated. School officials are sponsoring vaccine drives for students and staff, including boosters for adults in the coming week.
State health officials reported an additional 2,514 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. Overall, about 17% of New Mexico residents have been infected, with nearly 6% of cases resulting in hospitalization and 1.6% ending in death.
Scrase said the death rate so far is about 12 times that of influenza but that early data seems to indicate less severe illness with the latest variant and he’s hopeful that subsequent variants continue on that trajectory.
The state plans to begin distributing the first of 35,000 tests to socially vulnerable communities soon and people will be able to report the results of their home tests to the Health Department beginning Thursday.
Attanasio reported from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.