- Surveillance testing and enhanced safety practices seem to be working
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) reports today that the number of students and staff who were infectious with COVID-19 while on a public school campus dropped 37 percent last week, possibly due to new protocols to keep schools safe for in-person learning.
For the week ending Sept. 11, 504 students and staff members were reported infectious on campus compared to 806 the previous week.
Rigorous surveillance testing, enhanced COVID-safe practices, vaccination clinics and other prevention efforts may be contributing to that decline, Public Education Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus said during a joint news conference with Department of Health officials.
“In-person learning is really important. Kids do better when they’re in school, so we’re working really hard to keep schools open and keep kids safe,” Steinhaus said. “We’re really happy about this data because it shows this approach is working.”
All 89 New Mexico school districts and 98 state-chartered schools have until Oct. 1 to submit Enhanced COVID-Safe Practices to implement in case of rising student or staff infections. Plans are unique to each local educational authority but may include steps like staggering student arrival and departure times, reorganizing hallway traffic or banning school visitors. Those and other possible steps are listed in this template the Public Education Department is using to evaluate local plans.
Those plans, which must be posted on district/school websites by Oct. 1, replace last year’s requirement that schools automatically switch to remote learning upon reaching four Rapid Responses in 14 days. That threshold applied whether a school had 120 or 1,200 students. (A Rapid Response was defined as one or more positive cases at a school that were infectious while on campus. All cases that a school was notified of on a single day, along with all cases with test dates through the following day were grouped into a single rapid response.)
“If a local school board is concerned about an infection rate, they can decide to close on their own. That’s now a local decision, and it’s working exceptionally well,” Steinhaus said.
Since Aug. 6, about 30 schools have opted to temporarily return to remote learning because of COVID concerns. As of today, no schools to the department’s knowledge are in remote learning.
Surveillance testing – testing asymptomatic individuals for the virus – is another critical component of the new school safety plan. Weekly testing is required for unvaccinated staff, and voluntary testing is available at every school for students, with a goal of testing 25 percent of the student population weekly.
A new $63 million Department of Health grant will make surveillance testing easier by providing funds and direct assistance to help New Mexico schools pay for and execute mandated COVID-testing programs.
Through a grant-funded contract, Premier Medical Group is offering to send clinically capable personnel to every New Mexico school to test all unvaccinated staff and unvaccinated students who have parental permission. Additionally, schools may use funding from the grant to hire school nurses or health assistants or otherwise strengthen their testing-related health services.
Vaccination remains the key to ending the global pandemic, health officials said. Since Aug. 1, 59 school-based vaccination clinics have been held across New Mexico, and the Public Education Department continues to encourage schools to sponsor those.