FORT SUMNER — The COVID pandemic and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders have come to roost in De Baca County.
A recent increase in the number of positive cases in the county — from one to 23 since Oct. 27 — is not the most pressing issue, however. It’s the contact tracing factor that has several governmental agencies in the county at the breaking point.
With so many persons in De Baca County wearing multiple hats, the ripple effect of state-mandated quarantines is that multiple agencies can be affected by the forced quarantine of a single worker. They are not infected, just potentially exposed. And they are required to quarantine for 14 days for each exposure.
On Nov. 9, Fort Sumner schools suspended its in-person classes for elementary students until further notice after word was received that a staff member and at least one student had tested positive for the virus. But by the time the district had determined all those potentially exposed, the resulting quarantines left the school without adequate staffing to continue in-person operations. The cafeteria was closed and district-wide virtual learning was implemented.
Fort Sumner Superintendent Matt Moyer posted a letter on the school’s website outlining the school’s plans to handle the outbreak.
“Per guidance from both the NMPED and the NMDOH, we are required to investigate to see who had ‘close contact’ with the staff member or student who tested positive for COVID-19. A close contact is defined as being closer than six feet for more than three minutes to a person who is positive for COVID-19 and all staff and students who were in the same classroom or on the same bus as the infected individual … all staff who were in ‘close contact’ with the infected individual must be tested seven to 10 days after close contact exposure to the positive COVID-19 individual. All students who were close contacts are strongly encouraged to be tested. Both staff and student close contacts must self-quarantine at home for 14 days, regardless of the test results.”
Moyer told the school board Nov. 9 the state protocols for virus exposure affect small schools more significantly because there is a point “where you just can’t work around it.”
“The impact of the protocols is such that if we lose one or two people (to quarantine), there is no one to step in and do their jobs,” Moyer said.
Moyer also expressed concerns about recent studies that show a significant “loss of learning” in the virtual education setting and decisions by elementary parents to keep their children at home as COVID numbers rise in the county and in the state. The impact is that teachers are forced to work harder to provide educational services to students.
“Teachers are working harder and longer hours,” Moyer said. “There is added stress and frustration.”
Moyer told the board that the district has a survey out for parents, students and teachers to provide feedback as the district evaluates what is working and what is not.
“We need feedback from the community to help us make the decisions that would streamline the online education process for parents and students,” Moyer said. “We would like to eliminate as much frustration as possible.”
Moyer said the district has some flexibility that would allow it to offer classes at different times in the day, not just in the morning hours.
“We know we need to pare down our schedule so kids are not in front of a screen so much,” he added.
Moyer also suggested that parents might take advantage of the “i-ready” math and reading applications for elementary students and the Khan Academy applications for junior high and high school students outside the regular school days. He said an hour a day of work on those applications could significantly reduce the learning loss students across New Mexico are now experiencing.