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THURS: NM To Update Social Studies Curriculum For First Time Since 2001, + More

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New Mexico Social Studies Curriculum Open To Public Comment – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico education officials are asking for public comment on their overhaul of the social studies curriculum.

It's the first major revision of what children are meant to learn in history, geography, and civics since 2001.

The new standards add historical events since the last update, including the 9/11 attacks and the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is beyond time for this update,” said acting New Mexico Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus. “In social studies, that includes a fuller understanding of the many cultures that together make New Mexico unique.”

The current curriculum requires an understanding of a group broadly defined as “Native Americans,” almost always in comparison to Anglo and Spanish settlers. The new curriculum would require students to understand more about Navajo, Pueblo and other tribes.

The proposed curriculum would also require high school students to study the history of the LGBTQ rights movement and the AIDS epidemic, which are not mentioned in the current curriculum.

New Mexicans have 46 days to comment on the new curriculum. The state will then have the chance to incorporate feedback before it’s implemented in the 2022-2023 school year.

New Mexico To Try SAT Again After Virus Derails Test Mandate – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico students will take the SAT in spring 2022 as the state phases in a pandemic-delayed testing requirement aimed at increasing participation that varies widely by racial and ethnic groups.

Those disparities were stark this spring as high school students were offered the test but didn’t have to take it. There were deep differences in high school juniors' participation according to racial and ethnic groups, with particularly low tallies among Indigenous students, data released by New Mexico’s education department show.

The state had planned to require high school juniors to take the English and Math exams this spring, replacing previous statewide assessments. Around a dozen states including Ohio and New Jersey require students to take the SAT or list it as one of the options to fulfill federal requirements for standardized testing.

But the pandemic made it harder for students nationwide to take the SAT. Logistical complications from the virus spurred New Mexico to get a waiver from federal testing requirements.

Exactly 25% of eligible high school juniors took the test this spring in New Mexico, according to data released by the state's Public Education Department this week.

The rate was far lower for Indigenous students, with only 11% of high school juniors in that group taking the test.

In Cuba, on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, around two-thirds of high school students have roots with the tribe. Eight students took the SAT last spring, down from 60 in a typical year, said Anna Brown, a guidance counselor at Cuba High School. Three were Navajo and took the test to qualify for the Chief Manuelito Scholarship run by the Navajo Nation.

“There were a bunch of kids that signed up for it initially,” said Brown, who encourages students to take the SAT because the state pays for it and it's often accepted interchangeably with the competing ACT. “Not that many kids actually showed up" and wanted to take the risk, she said.

An increasing number of universities no longer require the SAT for admission, but state officials and local guidance counselors still encourage students to take it.

“If SAT weren’t the state-designated assessment for high school, some students might never realize their potential for college placement. It also allows students access to scholarship opportunities who otherwise might not be able to afford tuition,” said Lynn Vasquez, Learning Management System director at the education department.

The SAT is now free each spring for New Mexico juniors. If students want to take it more than once, it can cost as much as $100 with fees, or as cheap as $6 in districts like Cuba in the fall where most or all of the students come from low-income families and are eligible for free lunch programs, Brown said.

“It’s like a gift," Brown said, noting that students can take the free test as juniors and then improve their scores as seniors.

The pandemic put those gifts out of reach for many, particularly in rural areas.

New Mexico has a large Indigenous population that accounts for one in ten students in grades K-12. Many live on tribal lands, which were more likely to implement strict lockdowns. Local officials were less likely to be able to offer internet access and remote learning, despite extraordinary efforts to do so. Native American residents are more likely to share a home with relatives, and those relatives are more likely to have underlying health conditions.

Indigenous high school students in Cuba were extra careful to avoid virus risk, Brown said. Some of her students who missed out on the SAT in the spring plan to take it this fall.

Indigenous students participated at the lowest rate of any group second only to foster children, only 10% of whom took the test, according to the spring education department data. Participation rates were at 15% or lower for students with disabilities, English language learners, and homeless students.

That’s compared to 50% of Asian students, 38% of white students, 25% of Black students, and 23% of Hispanic students who took the test.

Of New Mexico students who took the test this spring, 57% scored at or above the benchmark in the SAT’s composite English and math tests. That’s down compared to around 70% in 2019.

University Threatens Expulsion For Unvaccinated Students – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Students at one of New Mexico’s largest public universities will be disenrolled if they don’t comply with a vaccine mandate or opt to get tested regularly.

The move is part of the University of New Mexico’s policy for having all students inoculated, whether they’re taking classes in-person or online. New Mexico State University isn’t going that far but disciplinary measures can include suspension.

Overall, about 70% of New Mexicans 18 and over are fully vaccinated, but getting beyond that percentage is proving to be an uphill battle since there still is reluctance among many people to get the shots.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich is among those pushing federal officials to move ahead with vaccines for younger children. Some parents have raised concerns, saying more time is needed to determine the effects of the shots on young children.

The New Mexico senator joined fellow Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Alex Padilla of California in writing a letter urging Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock to work "as quickly as science allows” to authorize safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12.

"Surging at alarming rates in every region of America, the delta variant has created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across the country. This is a risk that requires immediate attention,” the senators wrote, noting that more than 5.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. since the pandemic began.

In New Mexico, the latest data shows there have been nearly 40,500 pediatric cases overall with most of those involving kids ages 12-17. In the last week, about one quarter of the state's new cases have involved kids.

The data also shows cases are trending downward.

At the University of New Mexico, the mandatory vaccine deadline is Thursday for students and staff. The school will require those without proof of vaccination to get tested weekly. Those who don't comply with the mandates will be dropped from the rolls on or by Nov. 5.

The university also warned that disenrollment will result in termination of student employment, including graduate student contracts, and that scholarships, loans, grants or other financial aid may be affected.

County Jails Contend With High-Risk Environment For COVID-19 – Associated Press

County jails across New Mexico are contending with a high-risk environment for COVID-19 infection at the same time that many more beds are being filled with inmates, an association of county governments announced Wednesday.

Grace Philips, general counsel to New Mexico Counties alliance of local governments, warned legislators that overall coronavirus vaccination rates among staff at county detention centers are lower than the statewide average — 61% versus about 71% for adults in general.

Vaccinations rates among county jail inmates are far lower — 39% statewide as of late-September.

Philips complimented county jails on their efforts to limit the spread of the highly contagious delta variant through entry screenings, quarantine procedures and vaccination clinics for inmates, but noted that the number of detected cases is on the upswing in the congregate living facilities.

“What we have is an extremely high-risk environment for COVID,” Philips said.

The number of inmates held in county detention centers has increased to 5,280 in late September, from about 3,850 on May 1, 2020 — an increase of more than 25%, New Mexico Counties estimates.

Philips also noted that the highly contagious delta variant arrived this summer as courts started to restore in-person proceedings, contributing to risks of infection.

The upward population trends at county jails stands in stark contrast to state prison facilities, where populations are declining.

In response to the pandemic, more than 550 state prisoners have been released since April 2020 under an executive order from the governor to commute sentences for prisoners who are eligible for early release, with the exception of several serious crimes.

Data On Child Abuse In New Mexico Called Into Question –Associated Press

Data on child abuse in New Mexico has been called into question after lawmakers raised concerns that the former director of the state’s child welfare agency provided inaccurate statistics.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports legislative committee staff has since found child abuse deaths in the state have more than doubled in fiscal year 2020 from the previous year and the state has the second-highest rate of repeated child maltreatment in the nation.

In a memo last week, Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey said the state Children, Youth and Families Department also has struggled with staff vacancies and high turnover in key leadership positions and that agency oversight needs improvement.

The legislative review came after committee members raised concerns that the agency’s former Cabinet secretary, Brian Blalock, provided inaccurate statistics at a July hearing.

According to Abbey’s memo, Blalock reported child maltreatment rates were below national averages, but the committee’s staff found rates that soared to nearly twice the U.S. rates between 2015 and 2019, when the state ranked 6th highest in the nation.

National data for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, when the state’s rates dipped during the coronavirus pandemic, are not yet available. But the memo cited a likely decline in national numbers as well due to a lack of reporting as children remained isolated in their homes.

Blalock resigned in August amid a controversy centered on his department’s use of an encrypted messaging app called Signal.

Blalock, who will be replaced by former state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil, has said his reason for leaving was to support his wife as she pursues a new job opportunity.

Agency spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said in a statement that the department under new leadership will approach its work with transparency and accountability.

Navajo Nation Reports 67 More COVID-19 Cases, 5 More Deaths – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 67 more COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe’s totals to 33,907 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The known death toll now is at 1,447.

Based on cases from Sept. 10-23, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory for 40 communities due to an uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

The tribe’s reservation is the country’s largest at 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel.

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of this month or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos.

Any worker who did not show proof of vaccination by Wednesday must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

Jury Hears From Airman's Brother In Arizona Murder Trial – Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

The brother of a U.S. Air Force airman on trial in the death of a Mennonite woman testified Wednesday that the defendant asked him to remotely scrub information from his cellphone shortly before he was arrested and later charged with kidnapping and murder.

Samuel Gooch's testimony came as the trial against his younger brother, Mark Gooch, reached its scheduled halfway point. A Coconino County Superior Court judge issued an order to compel Samuel Gooch to testify after he said he would invoke his right against self-incrimination. He was granted prosecutorial immunity.

Mark Gooch faces up to life in prison if he's convicted of first-degree murder and other charges in the death of Sasha Krause, 27. She disappeared from a Mennonite community where she was living in Farmington, New Mexico, in January 2020. Her body was found more than a month later in a forest clearing outside Flagstaff, Arizona.

Prosecutor Ammon Barker pressed Samuel Gooch on about 90 minutes of phone conversations he had with Mark Gooch the day Krause went missing, but Samuel Gooch mostly responded that he didn't recall anything of substance. He also didn't reiterate a statement he made to investigators last year about Mark Gooch holding a grudge against Mennonites.

“I can't necessarily speak to what Mark's feelings might have been,” he said.

Samuel Gooch said he and Mark Gooch sometimes discussed aspects of Mennonite life they disagreed with, and negative feelings came up. They grew up in Wisconsin in a Mennonite community, but neither officially joined the church.

“My memory of the experience would have been, it was easy to feel that we were less accepted into that culture since we were not necessarily born into it, not multigenerational family that had been in the Mennonites for decades,” he said.

Jurors did not hear details of a separate but related case involving Samuel Gooch. Authorities accused him of flying to Arizona from Wisconsin last year to pick up what he thought was the .22-caliber rifle used to shoot Krause. Samuel Gooch pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of facilitation to commit hindering prosecution and is on probation.

On the witness stand Wednesday, Samuel Gooch said Mark Gooch asked him to remotely clear his cellphone and SD cards, as well as how to deactivate his Google account. Investigative records show Mark Gooch deleted his location history from a Google account.

Authorities said they tied Mark Gooch to Krause’s death through cellphone location data, financial receipts and surveillance video. Mark Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, has called the science “weak.”

Barker has argued Mark Gooch was motivated to kill Krause because he had a general disdain toward Mennonites and tried to cover his tracks after the killing. Griffen has said his client engaged in text message banter with his brothers and had visited at least three churches in search of fellowship.

The word “Mennonite” rarely showed up in text messages, Griffen said, and doesn't indicate homicidal intent.

Jurors also heard Wednesday from the medical examiner who oversaw Krause's autopsy, a state crime lab employee who collected samples from Gooch's car, and a sheriff's employee. Krause's parents turned away as photos of their daughter were projected onto a screen.

Medical examiner Michael Madsen said Krause had been hit with a blunt object and shot in the back of the head.

Virgin Galactic Says FAA Has Cleared It For Further Flights – Associated Press

Virgin Galactic said Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared it to resume launches after an investigation into why its spaceship veered off course while descending during a July flight with founder Richard Branson aboard.

The company said it was advised by the FAA that corrective actions proposed by Virgin Galactic have been accepted.

A larger area will be designated as protected airspace to ensure there is room for “a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions,” a company statement said.

Virgin Galactic said it will incorporate additional steps in its flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA air traffic control.

CEO Michael Colglazier said the company is committed to safety and appreciated the FAA's review.

"The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience,” he said.

During the July 11 incident, the rocketship carrying Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees deviated outside the air traffic control clearance area during descent to a runway in New Mexico. The FAA imposed a halt on flights pending the investigation.

Virgin Galactic has said high-altitude wind caused the change in flight path and insisted the two pilots responded appropriately. The company said the ship did not travel over population centers or cause a hazard to the public.

Navajo Voting Rights Advocate Agnes Laughter Has Died – Associated Press

Agnes Laughter, a Navajo weaver who successfully challenged the constitutionality of Arizona’s in-person voting procedures and restrictive identity requirements for Native Americans, has died, tribal officials said.

Navajo Nation Council officials said Laughter died Sunday, but no cause was immediately released.

Born in 1932 in a traditional Navajo hogan without running water or electricity, Laughter was 16 when Native Americans got the right to vote in Arizona.

In 2006, she was part of a lawsuit that led to the U.S. Justice Department expanding the list of documents that can serve as tribal identification at polling places.

It was in response to Arizona’s 2004 voter-approved measure mainly aimed at preventing undocumented migrants from voting and receiving public benefits.

Laughter had been using her thumbprint for most of her adult life before the new law required birth certificates, bank statements or driver’s licenses

“You’re not welcome here because you don’t have the proper ID,’” Laughter later recalled what an election official told her in 2006. “I was so humiliated. It was like I didn’t even exist.”

Navajo officials said Laughter — a renowned weaver from the community of Chilchinbeto — did not have a birth certificate, didn’t speak English and never attended school.

In 2008, the Justice Department revised procedures to provide a broader, non-exhaustive list of documents that may serve as tribal identification to vote.

“We honor the life work of the late Agnes Laughter and the legacy she leaves behind,” tribal council Speaker Seth Damon said in a statement. “Future generations will remember her as a protector of our right to vote and the beautiful Navajo rugs she created. The Navajo people are grateful for her courage.”