THURS: Governor Delays In-Person Schooling As State Sees Record Daily High In COVID Cases, + More

Jul 23, 2020

New Mexico Governor Opts For Online Start To The School Year - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is hitting the pause button on reopening public schools this fall, meaning classes will be virtual at least through Sept. 7.

State public education officials initially proposed a hybrid plan combining in-person classroom time with remote online learning.

But the governor said Thursday that the rates of spread and positivity for the coronavirus are just too high right now.

Districts representing more than 40% of the state's students already had requested a virtual start to the school year.

The governor says another 343 COVID-19 cases have been reported, marking the state's all-time daily high since the pandemic started.

The statewide case total now stands at 18,163, and officials are concerned that the seven-day average for positive cases has more than doubled in the last five weeks.

If things improve, the state plans to roll out its hybrid plan after the Labor Day holiday by bringing back the youngest students first, followed by middle schoolers and then high school students.

The goal, the governor said, is to have all students back

There are two exceptions to the governor's plan. Students with special needs and those in grades kindergarten through third grade who have the most learning needs could meet one-on-one with teachers or in small groups.

School districts last week submitted their plans for the start of the school year to the state Public Education Department. Those plans are still being reviewed, but state officials acknowledge that 40% of parents believe it's not safe for their kids to go back.

A coalition of Latino advocacy groups on Wednesday released the results of their own survey, showing that Latino parents have serious concerns about their children spending too much time away from school or not learning enough from on-line schooling.

More than 80% of the 480 parents who were queried in June said they were very concerned about their children falling behind, with math being the subject of greatest concern.

Many of the families said the lack of internet access was a problem in the spring after schools were forced to close and districts shifted to remote learning.

Native American parents and other advocacy groups have voiced similar concerns.

State officials indicated that federal coronavirus relief funding could help districts with their infrastructure needs and that more money could be freed up for broadband access. However, the governor acknowledge that education will be expensive in a COVID-19 environment and that those improvements won't come overnight.

Under the Albuquerque school district agreement, teachers and staff will have the option of working from home when guidelines outlined by the state are met.

District officials say training, planning, meetings and teaching will all take place online during the first few weeks of school, though teachers may choose to work in their classrooms and meet in small groups as long as they abide by statewide public health orders. That includes wearing masks.

The school district will provide employees with masks, extra cleaning supplies for their classrooms, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment.

New Mexico Deputies: Man Killed Following Fight Over MaskAssociated Press

New Mexico authorities are investigating a deadly shooting at an auto shop after a man who refused to wear a mask tried to run over the shop owner's son and crashed into a vehicle before driving off.

An incident report written by Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies say as they were searching for the man, they received a call from the shop owner saying the man had returned and that his son had shot someone. Deputies found two men on the ground. One didn't have a pulse.

Albuquerque police have taken over the investigation. Spokesman Gilbert Gallegos declined to release more details, saying detectives were interviewing additional people.

Surge Of Federal Agents Leaves Many Questions UnansweredBy Michael Tarm, AP Legal Affairs Writer

President Donald Trump offered few details when he announced this week that the government will dispatch hundreds of extra federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to fight violent crime.

The absence of a clear, publicly available plan has left city leaders and federal agencies themselves left to speculate about exactly what is going to happen and when.

Among questions not yet fully answered is how many agents will come from which federal agencies.

The plan for Chicago and Albuquerque doesn't seem to include federal agents engaging protesters, as has happened in Portland, Oregon.

Trump said hundreds of agents will be drawn from the Justice Department, which includes the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Precise numbers were not provided. Attorney General Bill Barr suggested at one point that around 200 new agents could end up in Chicago.

For now, the plan for Chicago and Albuquerque does not seem to include federal agents engaging with protesters. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Barr both said the mission in Chicago and Albuquerque would differ from the mission in Portland.

New Mexico Forests Lift Campfire Bans As Monsoons Crank UpAssociated Press

Some New Mexico forests are rolling back bans on campfires as the summer rainy season sets in.

Officials with the Lincoln and Gila national forests cited the onset of monsoons as the reason for rescinding fire restrictions on the southern New Mexico forests. Still, forest managers are warning people that they still need to be careful and to extinguish campfires before leaving a campsite.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque say another round of showers and thunderstorms is likely for much of the state Thursday.

All of New Mexico is dealing with some form of drought, with the northern border and spots in eastern New Mexico faring the worst.

New Mexico AG To Review Shooting Death Of Mentally Ill WomanAssociated Press

New Mexico's attorney general is taking over the investigation of whether deputies should face charges in the shooting death of a mentally ill woman.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Wednesday that Attorney General Hector Balderas said the family of Elisha Lucero asked him to take over the review.

Authorities responded to the family's home in July 2019 after a relative called 911 saying Lucero, 28, had hit her uncle. The relative told authorities Lucero was mentally ill.

Lucero later ran out screaming with a knife. In response, three deputies fired their weapons. She was shot 21 times.

A lawsuit filed by her family against the Bernalillo County Commission and Sheriff Manuel Gonzales was settled for $4 million in March.

A spokeswoman for 2nd Judicial District Attorney's Office said a contract special prosecutor had been reviewing the case for the past several months and the office welcome Balderas taking over the case. Their office has nearly a dozen cases awaiting review and no funding for full-time, independent prosecutors.

2 US House Dems Seek COVID-19 Funds For Returning WorkersAssociated Press

Two U.S. House Democrats are seeking to extend federal unemployment assistance and benefits to those reentering the workforce during the pandemic.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico and Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada introduced Thursday the Back on Your Feet Act, which seeks to provide a one-time federal payment of $3,600 to residents returning to work.

Under the proposal, returning workers would receive the payment to help with higher costs of working during the pandemic and provide income until the first paycheck arrives.

Federal unemployment benefits would also be extended through January 31, 2021, for more than 30 million workers.

The legislation also would provide another $2 billion to help states process unemployment applications.

Torres Small said the bill will allow returning workers to use the extra money to pay for things like childcare.

The Las Cruces Democrats said the bill will help counties with high unemployment rates.

Trump Targets Albuquerque Crime With Security Deployments - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

President Trump focused on an open wound in the law enforcement community — the unsolved shooting death of the mother of two New Mexico state police officers — in announcing that federal agents, including Homeland Security officers, will surge into Albuquerque, Chicago and other U.S. cities in an attempt to contain violent crime.

At the White House, Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the expansion of an initiative against violent crime in Albuquerque and Chicago that includes an increase in federal agents and grant money for local law enforcement agencies. Barr said 35 agents are being assigned to Albuquerque.

The announcement prompted immediate concerns among Democratic elected officials in New Mexico of federal overreach and the potential for new civil rights abuses in a city that has wrestled with issues of police brutality and reforms under a consent decree with the Department of Justice.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas said they will actively monitor federal law enforcement operations for any civil rights violations, while Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raùl Torrez said federal agents must stay within their traditional crime-fighting roles.

"If the Trump administration wishes to antagonize New Mexicans and Americans with authoritarian, unnecessary and unaccountable military-style 'crackdowns,' they have no business whatsoever in New Mexico," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

Barr drew a distinction between the federal response in Portland, Oregon, and the agents being dispatched to cities such as Albuquerque in coordination with local law enforcement.

"This is a different kind of operation, obviously, than the tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence," Barr said. "The operations we're discussing today are very different. They are classic crime fighting." 

Trump warned that crime is spiraling out of control in American cities — including Democrat-led Albuquerque and Chicago.

The Democratic sheriff of New Mexico's most populous county that includes Albuquerque traveled to the White House for discussion of the initiative — prompting a string of rebukes from fellow Democrats.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales — who has been at odds on issues of policing, gun control and police body cameras with the state's Democratic governor and Albuquerque's Democratic mayor — defended the visit as an effort to secure federal assistance for a community contending with persistent crime, the pandemic and bursts of late-night rioting in downtown Albuquerque in June.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich called Tuesday on Gonzales to resign, amid uncertainty about the consequences of the sheriff's White House visit.

Usually, the Justice Department sends agents under its own umbrella, like agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Drug Enforcement Agency. But this surge effort will include Department of Homeland Security Investigations officers, who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations.

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said the federal response is appropriate given local crime rates, evidence of human trafficking in a border state and the need for adequate security surrounding national defense installations in Albuquerque — at Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratories.

"Calling these federal agents stormtroppers, there is nothing further from the truth," Pearce said. "That's the problem with the deep partisanship that's dividing the country right now. It's asinine to tell you the truth."

Amid a wave of national protests over policing practices, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has announced a proposal to create a city agency to focus on community safety by deploying social workers and other civilian professionals with a focus on violence prevention, mental health and homelessness.

Albuquerque authorities have struggled for years to contain both violent crime and police brutality.

The Albuquerque Police Department began implementing policing reforms years ago under a prior administration as part of a consent decree with the Justice Department. Federal authorities in 2014 issued a scathing report in response to a series of deadly police shootings in the city that pointed to patterns of excessive force, constitutional violations and a lack of training and oversight of its officers.


Shutdown Approaches For New Mexico Coal-Fired Power Plant  - Associated Press

A coal-fired power plant in western New Mexico will be shutting down by the end of the year, and local officials are bracing for the economic consequences of the closure. 

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced the closure of the Escalante Generating Station near Grants earlier this year. 

Utility officials said during a virtual town hall that they're working with local officials, businesses and economic development groups to mitigate some of the effects on McKinley and Cibola counties. 

The plant has an annual economic impact of nearly $100 million and supports some 226 direct and indirect jobs.

Testing Supplies Run Short For Albuquerque Health Providers Associated Press

Officials with major health care providers in Albuquerque say they're having to temporarily stop COVID-19 testing for people who are asymptomatic.

That's because there has been an unanticipated disruption in testing supplies. University of New Mexico Hospital, Presbyterian and Lovelace health system locations will conduct testing only for patients showing symptoms.

Presbyterian also will continue testing for those who have been exposed to someone with a confirmed infection.

Statewide, thousands of people are being tested per day. New Mexico health officials say tests since the pandemic began topped 481,000 on Tuesday.

The health care systems in Albuquerque are telling people without symptoms or known exposure, and workers looking for clearance by their employers to check the New Mexico Department of Health website for alternative testing locations.

State health officials reported another 316 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 17,828. Those include six cases among New Mexico Corrections Department inmates at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Valencia County and the Otero County Prison Facility.

There were also three more deaths reported Wednesday. A total of 591 New Mexicans have died due to COVID-19.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Officials with the health care providers said symptoms meeting the criteria for testing include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, a loss of taste or smell, congestion, fatigue, headache, nausea and diarrhea.

Navajo Nation Will Extend Closure Of Government Offices Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials say President Jonathan Nez will sign a new executive order to keep a portion of the tribal government closed through Aug. 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Divisions, departments and offices under the executive branch were due to reopen July 27 under the previous executive order that Nez signed late last month.

Tribal officials told the Farmington Daily Times that Nez's decision was based on recommendations and data from health-care experts.

Steps for reopening the government remain under evaluation and Nez said his administration is in the process of finalizing a plan to reopen the executive branch in stages. 

The Navajo Nation's three-branch government has been closed to the public and restrictions on services have been in place since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in March.

The tribe has been flattening the curve in new cases since June, but areas surrounding tribal land have seen surges.

As of Tuesday, total cases among tribal members

stood at 8,639 with 425 known deaths.

Residents of the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have been under a mandate to wear masks when out in public.

The tribe also has daily, nighttime curfews and weekend lockdowns that include the closure of businesses.

Santa Fe School Counselor Accused Of Racism Back At Work - Santa Fe New Mexiccan, Associated Press 

A Santa Fe high school counselor accused of sharing racist messages on social media is back at work. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Tuesday that Stephanie Sheldon has resumed her job with Santa Fe High School after being placed on paid leave more than a month ago. 

A Santa Fe Public Schools spokesman said "appropriate actions" had been taken against her. 

A Philadelphia man publicly decried Facebook posts by Sheldon during an online school board meeting last month. 

In one post, Sheldon shared an image of a helicopter with a giant bucket of fried chicken with the caption "On my way to save Minneapolis." She also left a comment likening protesters of George Floyd's murder to “a bunch of animals." 

Sheldon did not respond to the newspaper's requests seeking comment.