MON: All New Mexico Schools Move To In-Person Learning, Expanded Vaccine Eligibility Begins, + More

Apr 5, 2021

All New Mexico Schools Move To In-Person Learning This Week - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

All New Mexico public school districts are expected to be open for in-person learning this week, with the largest district welcoming students back Monday with some hiccups due to a shortage of bus drivers.

Medium-sized districts in Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Las Vegas, and other cities will offer full-time in-person learning starting Tuesday, with some grade levels in some districts staggered later in the week.

The state's push to reopen gives the vast majority of parents the option of sending their children back to school after more than a year of struggling with child care, unmet special needs, at-home internet, and more report cards marked with Fs.

Districts are warning students that school won't be the same as before the pandemic.

They've been told to bring their laptops back and forth each day in case an outbreak shuts down their school again. With fountains shut off, they should bring water bottles. Hugs are banned and masks are required.

Parents who don't feel safe sending students back are allowed to keep them in remote classes this semester. At Las Vegas City Schools in northern New Mexico, around 60-70% of students will stay in remote learning. In Santa Fe, around 50% will attend in person.

In the state's largest district, Albuquerque, some parents may be unable to send their children to school in person because transportation hasn't been secured for a few of the bus routes, including some elementary schools.

"APS doesn't have enough bus drivers to resume all routes, so it's prioritizing transportation for students and areas with the highest needs. Walking groups and carpools are encouraged as safe options, and students can ride city buses for free," the district warned in social media posts last week.

All but three buses ran Monday morning, said APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta, despite a rash of contractors quitting or calling in sick over the weekend.

Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said he wasn't aware of any major traffic issues Monday morning stemming from the parent drop-offs.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham shuttered schools in March 2020 as the coronavirus swept across the U.S. Schools were slated to partially reopen in the fall, but few schools did as COVID-19 cases peaked, and the state adopted one of the strictest lockdowns in the nation.

Lujan Grisham marked Monday's reopening by visiting an elementary school in Los Alamos, and Education Secretary Ryan Stewart visited a charter school in Gallup, their spokeswomen said.

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder had warned in January that it would take around 30 days to restart bus driver contracts dormant during the pandemic. Elder's school board further delayed the task of rehiring drivers when it voted down proposals for hybrid in-person learning in February.

On March 8, state education officials announced that schools would need to reopen during the first week of April. State health officials pushed hard to vaccinate the vast majority of teachers last month.

Micro-districts accounting for around 1% of the student population have been open for full-time, in-person learning throughout the state since September, under an exception to the health order for districts with less than 100 students.

APS Classrooms Open For Full In-Person LearningKOB-TV, Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

Starting today, Mon. April 5, all Albuquerque Public Schools students are able to return to the classroom in person for the first time in over a year.

In-person learning is optional for the district’s students. KOB-TV reports the number of APS students expected to return to buildings this week varies, with some schools expecting to see all of their students, and others only about a quarter. APS is allowing families flexibility this week to make a final decision about whether their students will remain remote or return to the classroom.

Teachers will be expected to work with students both learning from home and from the classroom simultaneously. Since APS never went into the hybrid learning, this week will be the first time most faculty have had to balance the two learning models. Students learning in person will still need to bring their APS-issued device for this reason, according to the district.  

The Albuquerque Journal reports Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein says she’s heard a range of opinions on the return, with some teachers excited and others fearful for their health or concerned about getting needed equipment in time.  

KOB-TV reports students attending class in person – along with faculty and staff – are required to wear surgical masks or two-layer cloth masks. They’re also being encouraged to bring water bottles, as hallway fountains won’t be available, and to wear layers, as windows will be propped open to assist with ventilation.

Expanded Vaccine Eligibility Begins In New MexicoAssociated Press

All New Mexicans age 16 or older who wish to be vaccinated against the coronavirus now have a chance to receive their shots, as Monday marked the start of expanded eligibility under the state Department of Health's distribution plan.

The timeline for getting more shots out to the general public was sped up under a directive by the Biden administration to make all adults in the U.S. eligible by May 1. State officials also said they opened up eligibility because providers in some parts of the state were no longer able to find people to fill appointments.

Still, state health officials said those who were part of the earlier phases will be prioritized. That includes health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, and older New Mexicans with health conditions that put them at greater risk.

More than 30% of New Mexico's eligible population has been fully vaccinated. State data also shows that about 48% of residents have received their first shot.

Researchers at University of New Mexico Health Sciences announced Friday they plan to participate in a national clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of the Moderna vaccine in children.

Walter Dehority, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor in the UNM pediatrics department, said the project is awaiting final regulatory approval before launching. If approved, the trial would involve 6,750 children between the ages of 6 months and 12 years and participants would be followed for a year after the second vaccination.

Although most children appear to suffer few or no symptoms when infected with the coronavirus, Dehority contends there are still reasons to get them vaccinated. He said having children vaccinated would boost heard immunity among the overall population.

New Mexico Adopts New Law To Fight Hairstyle Discrimination Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed into law legislation that prohibits discrimination based on traditional hairstyles and head coverings.

It's known nationally as the "Crown Act" and was conceived as a measure to protect African Americans from discrimination based on natural or traditional hairstyles.

In New Mexico, it won support from a broader coalition, including Native American and religious advocates.

Traditional hairstyles and religious coverings under the new law cannot be prohibited in work or school dress codes or used as an excuse to turn someone down for a job.

Amy Whitfield, director of the state Office of African American Affairs, said those who testified during the legislative session on behalf of the legislation illustrated the effects of racial discrimination based on hair and its compounding effects on potential opportunities.

"The advocates of this bill should be commended for their articulation of the importance and necessity for this legislation to pass, through their shared experiences on the collective damage sustained through this type of discrimination," Whitfield said.

Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo called the legislation long overdue, saying there's no place for discrimination against students based on race or culture.

"We must do better to ensure our cultural heritage is respected," she said. "The passage of this legislation helps to ensure that racial inequities concerning hair and cultural headdresses are no more and that this type of discrimination will no longer be accepted or tolerated in our schools."

Indigenous Leaders Laud New Mexico's School Funding Measure - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Tribal leaders on Monday welcomed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's signature of a bill that will increase funding for schools serving Native American and military communities across New Mexico.

"This change is going to be a generational change," Zuni Pueblo Gov. Val Panteah said during a signing ceremony outside the state capitol, where he addressed Democratic leaders who passed the bill during this year's legislative session. "I thank you on behalf of Zuni people, and Zuni kids."

The law eliminates a state credit that deducted 75% of federal funding from state funding that schools received to compensate them for serving communities with large tracts of federal land.

The struggle to eliminate the credit for the federal funds, known as Impact Aid, was felt for decades across the state's nearly two dozen tribal nations. It led to a federal court ruling against the state's funding formula last year.

State leaders, in turn, thanked Native American leaders for pressuring them to change the system.

"I want to thank the people who have literally fought for their entire careers to make this happen," Lujan Grisham said.

Zuni school board member Anthony Lucio said it was a lawsuit filed by his community that made it happen. He served as staff to the tribal government when the legal challenge began 1998. "I'm thankful to all of the Zuni people and to our ancestral spirits," he said.

School districts cannot tax tribal reservations, military bases or other federal property. Instead, the federal government funds schools at a fixed rate. That means that, unlike other schools, they can't ask voters to raise taxes to increase school funding.

The bill also eliminated credits taken from districts that do raise local taxes, leading to concern during the session that the equalization funding policies that have guided school funding since the 1970s may be undone, and inequality between districts could increase.

Both sides of the funding feud celebrated a resolution through state lawmaking instead of federal court.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, thanked tribal leaders for "grabbing me by the lapels" to pass the new law.

Lujan Grisham also celebrated the reopening of many schools Monday and credited the strict pandemic lockdowns on tribal lands for saving lives.

Amid plenty of sunshine and New Mexico spring winds, Monday's bill signing marked one of the largest gathering of tribal leaders in person since the pandemic began.

"It's nice to see your faces outside of Zoom," Panteah told fellow tribal leaders.

The governor also signed a measure aimed at funneling more funding to schools in high poverty areas as part of a pilot program. The Legislature appropriated $15 million for the Family Income Index for each of the next two years. That will be divided among schools selected for a pilot, funding them for reading and math interventions as well as other student supports such as hiring school counselors and social workers and creating family resource centers.

New Child Support Law Brings New Mexico Into ComplianceAssociated Press

A measure signed into law Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham modernizes New Mexico's child support law, bringing the state into compliance with federal regulations and national best practices.

State officials said the changes will keep New Mexico from losing out on more than $147 million in federal money that could provide temporary aid for low-income families.

The legislation updates the state's statute to align with federal rules that are based on the combined parents' actual income and the non-custodial parents' ability to pay. It also allows the state to focus on providing employment opportunities and job security to help non-custodial parents meet their obligations.

Lujan Grisham said the law will result in more support for New Mexico kids.

"Teaming up with parents to find jobs and set child support orders that are affordable is a better way to increase consistent child support payments for New Mexico children," she said in a statement. "Working parents who don't live with their kids will be able to build stronger relationships with them when they feel good about being able to financially support them."

The governor's office pointed to studies that show non-custodial parents who owe less child support debt have significantly more contact with their children and are more effective parents.

The new law also adjusts the timetable for assessing fees and costs as well as for assessing retroactive child support arrears, reducing it from 12 years to three years. The court may assess for a longer period if there's evidence that an action to establish paternity could not have been brought before the court any sooner.

City Of Albuquerque, Aerospace Company Agree To Lease Deal - Associated Press

The city of Albuquerque in New Mexico and an aerospace company that is planning a satellite manufacturing operation have come to terms on a lease for 114.5 acres of Aviation Department land. 

The pending development agreement requires Theia Group Inc. to develop the site in the next decade, including at least 48 acres by 2025, according to documents Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller sent this week to the City Council.

The proposed project could host 1,000 workers when it opens and eventually grow to about 2,500 people, representatives have said.

Theia Group is the parent firm of Group Orion, which last year began the entitlement process for the planned campus, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

"The purpose of this large facility is to receive components, and complete the assembly, integration and testing of satellites," an Orion representative wrote to the city planning commission last fall.

The company, which has declined to comment on the project, did not respond to the outlet about a request for comment about the lease agreement.

Panel Dismisses Most Of Ethics Complaint Against Legislator - Associated Press

The State Ethics Commission has dismissed two of three allegations in an ethics complaint filed by a retired judge against House Speaker Brian Egolf and instead will refer them to a legislative ethics committee.

The commission did not announce a decision on the complaint's third allegation, that Egolf had failed to disclose a conflict of interest, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The commission on Friday dismissed and referred to the Interim Legislative Ethics Committee allegations that Egolf used his office's powers to obtain personal benefit and failed to ethically discharge his duties as a legislator.

The Santa Fe Democrat has denied the allegations, which center on his work as a lawyer and his push to enact civil rights legislation.

Sandra Price, a retired state judge, filed the complaint in February, alleging Egolf and his law firm stood to benefit from passage of the bill because of their work on civil rights cases.

The commission didn't explain its decision Friday, but Executive Director Jeremy Farris notified Price and Egolf last month that parts of the complaint are outside the commission's jurisdiction.

Farris also said then that the commission's general counsel would review the conflict of interest allegation.

Deming Police Say 2 Young Sisters Found Safe After Amber Alert Associated Press

Authorities say two young sisters in Deming who were the subject of an Amber Alert have been found safe.

Deming police said Sunday that 3-year-old Abri Lujan and 4-year-old Adelina Lujan were found unharmed hours after going missing. Their father, Jose Luis Lujan, is accused of abducting them and threatening to injure them.

Police said the girls were last seen earlier in the day around 2 a.m.

No other details were released.

It was not immediately known what charges Jose Lujan will face.

Deming Police: 2 Young Sisters Allegedly Abducted By Father - Associated Press

Two young girls in Deming who are sisters are reported missing and an Amber Alert has been issued, authorities said Sunday.

Deming police said they believe Jose Luis Lujan abducted his daughters, who are identified as 3-year-old Abri Lujan and 4-year-old Adelina Lujan.

Police said Jose Lujan allegedly made threats to injure the children, who were last seen around 2 a.m. Sunday.

Meanwhile, New Mexico State Police have canceled an Amber Alert for a missing endangered juvenile.

They said 16-year-old Jaylynn Mille has been located and is safe. 

The alert was first issued on March 27 involving Miller and 14-year-old Zuriah Castillo.

On Monday, State Police updated the alert for the missing teens to a "missing endangered juvenile advisory" from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Castillo was found safe Tuesday.

Navajo Nation Confirms 7 New COVID-19 Cases, 1 New DeathAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported seven additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

The latest figures released Sunday bring the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, increased to 30,172 cases and 1,258 deaths.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez reminded people that one virus variant has been confirmed to be on the Navajo Nation.

Nez says it's crucial to keep sticking to mitigation measures including wearing masks, social distancing and constant handwashing.

Tribal leaders plan to hold a virtual townhall Tuesday to give more updates.

In all, more than 16,000 people on the Navajo Nation have recovered from COVID-19.

Navajo Nation Reports 18 Additional COVID-19 Cases, 4 Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Saturday reported 18 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and four more deaths.

The pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation that includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah increased to 30,164 cases and 1,257 deaths.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez encouraged people to celebrate the Easter weekend safely while following COVID-19 protocols.

"Please stay home as much as possible, wear a mask, practice social distancing, avoid large in-person gatherings, and wash your hands with soap and water often," he said in a statement.