COVID-19 cases surface at education sites
August 26, 2020
SANTA FE — Coronavirus cases have surfaced at dozens of school and education sites in New Mexico this month, even without the return of traditional in-person classes, according to state records.
They’ve popped up across the state, from Albuquerque to Artesia, triggering the temporary closure of school buildings, contact tracing and deep cleaning.
Records published by the state Environment Department — which helps oversee rapid-response testing of employers — show schools have reported about 50 positive tests among employees at more than 30 locations since Aug. 1.
At least one school employee who tested positive has been reported in Clovis, Eastern New Mexico University, Floyd, Portales, Santa Fe, Socorro, Roswell, Rio Rancho,and Hobbs, among other communities.
For school leaders, it’s been a preview of the challenges they might face when in-person classes resume.
Dennis Roch, superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools, said his district heard from three state agencies — the departments of Health, Environment and Public Education — after an employee tested positive earlier this month. Each agency, he said, responded at its own pace, some taking days to follow up.
“There’s three separate agencies I’m reporting to, answering a lot of the same kinds of questions from each,” Roch said in an interview. “It raises a question about how rapid is the response under this ‘rapid response,’ and is the response even coordinated among different agencies?”
State officials, in turn, say their multiagency approach provides a thorough response when schools report a COVID-19 infection.
In an interview, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the Department of Health initiates “robust case investigation and support and contact tracing work,” with follow up from the Public Education Department.
“We try to see it as kind of one integrated system, where we each have a role,” Stewart said.
Now that schools are starting back up, he said, the PED’s role is to maintain contact with schools and make sure processes are in place to contain the virus and reopen safely. When an employee tests positive, Stewart said, the department helps the school make decisions about closure, cleaning and reopening.
“Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that if we find a case,” Stewart said, “we are able to contain it and isolate it. And so the top thing that we have to do right now is keep getting case rates down so that we don’t see outbreaks in schools, and we don’t have to have schools open and then close and then reopen.”