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Families prepare for extended school closures in New Mexico

March 14, 2020 GMT
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In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020, photo New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, right, announces a public health emergency in response to the state's first positive tests for COVID-19, at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M., also attended by Human Services Secretary David Scrase, left. Her administration has banned many gatherings of 100 or more people at spaces such as auditoriums and stadiums as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020, photo New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, right, announces a public health emergency in response to the state's first positive tests for COVID-19, at a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M., also attended by Human Services Secretary David Scrase, left. Her administration has banned many gatherings of 100 or more people at spaces such as auditoriums and stadiums as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Students picked up laptop computers and books Friday from school to settle into life at home without public gatherings for at least three weeks as New Mexico authorities tried to isolate 10 confirmed infections from the new coronavirus.

New Mexico is closing K-12 schools for three weeks starting Monday in its effort to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, but will leave most cafeterias and school health care offices open in a state with the second-highest rate of childhood poverty in the nation. Officials also have banned mass gatherings that involve 100 or more people in spaces such as stadiums or auditoriums as a way to limit the spread of the virus.

“Kids are going to school today, Monday they’re closed. That’s hard,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has tentatively scheduled an April 6 return to school that could be extended. “But I will make the decisions that protect the entire state and (arrange) the wrap-around services and supports that make families and businesses as whole as we can.”

She said the state is racing to limit infections and ensure the health care delivery system doesn’t get overwhelmed, blaming delayed reaction by the federal government for lost time. Out of 344 intensive care unit beds in the state, 54 of the beds were open this week, Human Services Secretary and physician David Scrase.

“This only works if people take this seriously and adopt the principle of social isolation,” he said. “If we close schools and everyone goes to the park, and kids are interacting with each other and continuing to play and touch each other — that’s not social isolation.”

Four new cases of the COVID-19 disease include household members in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties of those who had previously tested positive, as well as a Santa Fe County woman in her 20s who recently traveled to New York. At least two of the infected people in New Mexico have been hospitalized, with one in intensive care and both listed as stable.

State Epidemiologist Chad Smelser said there are no current indications of “community spread” from unidentified local contact, though some school populations have been exposed to infected people. Health officials declined to specify the affected schools that are being vetted for infections.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said some districts and charter schools will provide remote instruction by internet to students — but not if a portion of students might miss out.

“What we don’t want to do in making any of these decisions is exacerbate opportunity gaps that exist between those who have those devices and access and those who don’t,” he said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Many families across New Mexico rely on school meals to make ends meet financially. About 70% of students statewide are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch.

The governor said the state was preparing to deliver meals to children cut off from school cafeterias and emphasized that licensed childcare centers must remain open where workers are healthy. She urged employers to allow single parents to work from home when possible, and for neighbors to help each other.

New Mexico labor officials say they would be waiving weekly work search requirements for those receiving unemployment benefits.

The state’s ban on gatherings does not apply to airports, mass transit sites, shopping malls, homeless shelters, courthouses, health care facilities, places of worship, weddings and funerals.

Late Friday, the Roman Catholic archdiocese that includes Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other parts of central and northern New Mexico, announced that it was asking all parishes to immediately suspend public celebration of Masses and other non-essential meetings. The archdiocese also asked members to postpone or cancel baptisms, quinceañeras, weddings and funerals.

Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said grandparents must weight the risks to their own health if called on to care for grandchildren who are out of school.

“They are more vulnerable,” she said.