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Vaccines among last hurdles to open New Mexico classrooms

January 28, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, public elementary school teachers Julia and Seth Hooper pick up their children Emry, 7, and Ivy, 4, at the Western Heights Learning Center in Albuquerque, N.M. More school districts in New Mexico can bring students back into classrooms in early February, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The Democratic governor said she's allowing schools to open their doors to students of all ages, in a major pull-back of restrictions that were based on county-level COVID-19 case rates and hospital capacity. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, public elementary school teachers Julia and Seth Hooper pick up their children Emry, 7, and Ivy, 4, at the Western Heights Learning Center in Albuquerque, N.M. More school districts in New Mexico can bring students back into classrooms in early February, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The Democratic governor said she's allowing schools to open their doors to students of all ages, in a major pull-back of restrictions that were based on county-level COVID-19 case rates and hospital capacity. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, public elementary school teachers Julia and Seth Hooper pick up their children Emry, 7, and Ivy, 4, at the Western Heights Learning Center in Albuquerque, N.M. More school districts in New Mexico can bring students back into classrooms in early February, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The Democratic governor said she's allowing schools to open their doors to students of all ages, in a major pull-back of restrictions that were based on county-level COVID-19 case rates and hospital capacity. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s teacher’s unions say a slow vaccine rollout and the expiration of federal COVID-19 sick leave are the remaining hurdles to getting students in schools, while school administrators are adding fire inspections and bus contracts to the list.

On Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that some of the power to reopen schools will be given back to local districts nearly a year after they closed their doors.

That decision came with the blessing of union officials and a promise to the state’s teachers, who are among the oldest and therefore most vulnerable teaching population in the country.

“None of you — no educator, no school worker — should ever have to choose between your health and the students you serve,” Lujan Grisham said in her State of the State address to the Legislature, which convenes this month for its annual session.

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Earlier this month, the state began to vaccinate teachers.

In Santa Fe, a private school managed to get all 90 of its staff vaccinated, while the public school district had 100 shots for staff, out of some 2,000 employees.

The state’s largest district, Albuquerque Public Schools, hasn’t hosted a single vaccine clinic, spokeswoman Monica Armenta said Tuesday.

The announcement appeared to catch many school leaders off guard.

“I’m of two minds — on one hand I’m elated. We’ve been looking forward to the possibility of getting our students back into classrooms starting to resume some sort of normalcy,” said APS Interim Superintendent Scott Elder on Wednesday. “But I will admit to it was a little frustrating when we had given guidance saying okay if we’re going to do it give us lead time so that we can take care of the things that we need to take care of.”

Included in guidance sent out after Lujan Grisham’s speech is a mandate for schools to get a fire marshal visit, which must be scheduled two weeks in advance. That could be a bottleneck for Albuquerque 143 schools, Elder says. So will rehiring bus drivers laid off during the pandemic.

The Albuquerque Public School board will consider a new school action plan Feb. 3.

Union leaders were consulted in advance, but many of the details will be left to districts.

“The teachers still need to get vaccinated. They still need COVID leave,” said Albuquerque American Federation of Teachers president Ellen Bernstein in an interview before the announcement.

But the state has largely protected teachers. And it has no plans to pressure districts to open up or mandate they return in person.

“The governor has done just about everything that a governor can do to keep citizens in this state safe. She has shut things down. She has required people to wear masks. She has fined people for not doing so,” said NEA New Mexico teacher union president Mary Parr-Sanchez.

She’s also optimistic about vaccines.

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“The health department isn’t the only one that is receiving vaccines and so there are other ways that districts can get large quantities of educators vaccinated. And, and that’s what’s been happening,” Parr-Sanchez said.

In the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho, vaccination clinics were canceled by state officials citing miscommunication with districts and limited supply.

“We are disappointed that there was no information shared on the vaccination timeline for educators,” said Rio Rancho Public School spokeswoman Bethany Pendergras.

New Mexico Health Secretary Tracie Collins said Wednesday that schools will need to rely on new virus testing regimens to reopen with some sense of security, while the state waits the vaccine supply chain to grow.

“Regarding schools reopening, you know we’re going to prioritize teachers getting a vaccine who are 75 and older,” Collins told a panel of state legislators Wednesday.

She and Human Services Secretary David Scrase say the vaccine bottleneck is at the federal level.

“All schools can still open but if you’re in what we’re calling a red county, you would be tested much more often than you would in a yellow or green,” said Scrase, referring to color codes for infection rates. “Initially school districts have the option -- not the requirement, but the option -- to open on Feb. 8.”

Counties in green will initially need 12.5% testing rates among staff, while counties in red will need 25% testing rates, according to the Public Education Department, which plans to ramp up staff testing to 100% within 8 weeks.

Also in January, federal support for COVID-19 sick leave expired, meaning teachers who become sick after braving the virus would have to use sick leave or go unpaid during a quarantine.

Pendergrass says her district worked with the American Federation of Teachers union representing staff to offer 10 days of COVID-19 leave for illness or quarantine, with a significant caveat.

“If an employee voluntarily travels to any high-risk location out of state and is required to self-isolate or self-quarantine on return, that employee waives their right to these benefits and must use their own paid time off,” Pendergras said.

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Staff writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.

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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.