Rio Rancho Public Schools elementary students will revert to a virtual-only system beginning next week, the board of education decided in a special meeting Tuesday.

Students may, at least per the three-hour board meeting, be back in the classrooms Jan. 19, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Superintendent Sue Cleveland said that a recent survey revealed an estimated 28 percent of students and teachers will leave the state over the Thanksgiving holiday and at least 40 percent will be doing likewise over the winter break; she was worried there wouldn’t be enough teachers allowed back in the classrooms because of 14-day quarantines. Quarantined teachers can still teach virtually from their homes, as many have been doing.

“We certainly can’t control (travel plans),” Cleveland said. “The more travel we have, the more (COVID) cases we are going to have.”

Added board member Catherine Cullen, “We’ve been cooped up here a long time.”

“We have a lot of cases right now in the district, with no documented cases of (COVID-19) spreading from one campus to another,” Cleveland said.

Nationwide, there are record highs in positive COVID tests, and New Mexico is no exception.

One of the problems, she said, was “Some parents are not keeping their children at home when they are ill.”

The district’s hybrid learning was a mix of virtual and in-school instruction, for elementary students only. Middle schools were expected to open four to six weeks after elementary schools, and the high schools four to six weeks after that. But the first day of “four weeks” never began.

Board members first listened to Dr. Jason Mitchell, who, although not reporting anything that could be considered good news, told the board, “I don’t want to scare you all.”

Mitchell, the chief medical officer and clinical transformation officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, cautioned that when it comes to the pandemic, “We’re not at the crest; we’re still at the rise. … We’re in a significant growth phase” and “there’s a lot of spread that we can’t even predict.”

There’s concern statewide with the hospitals being inundated with COVID-19 patients, and already past their capacity. Nationwide, the New York Times wrote, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. hit a record on (Nov. 10) and “an average of 1,000 people a day have died in the past week.”

Hospitalizations in New Mexico are up 52 percent over the past two weeks, Mitchell said, and, “We have a lot of contingency plans right now.”

RRPS has had 40 students, staff members and contractors test positive, as of Nov. 10, Beth Pendergrass said. Worse, Cleveland noted, one RRPS student is critically ill with COVID.

But, it was mentioned, there hasn’t been any indication of the virus spreading from one RRPS campus to another, and the district’s random surveillance testing “is doing well,” according to Cleveland.

The board was unanimous in its decision to go to all-virtual learning after Nov. 20.

The Santa Fe and Los Alamos school districts are doing the same thing, Cleveland said.

In an email to parents of Rio Rancho students, Cleveland noted, “We are all partners in this public health battle.”

The school board meets virtually again Monday at 5:30 p.m.

Two ‘schools’ of thought

Of the first 74 public comments for the Nov. 10 special school board meeting, parents commenting were either for or against keeping the schools open. Here are two examples:

From Jonah Clark: Recognizing that public health experts indicate spread is minimal in schools, we still have to consider the recent increase in positive cases, and the fact that children are often asymptomatic carriers who can transmit the virus.

Please explain how keeping hundreds of people in the same buildings (even while trying to implement social distancing, because it is simply not always possible) is not contributing to our rise in cases? Increased community spread means increased spread among our families, which will lead to increased spread in the schools.

What does Rio Rancho Public Schools plan to do to keep everyone safe in light of the holiday season where people will be traveling and undoubtedly congregating? The governor says not to be around any New Mexican who is not in your immediate household, yet school is safe?

Also, sending students home for weeks on end because of common issues (headaches, stomach aches, congestion) does not seem beneficial when most of the positive cases are asymptomatic.

The back and forth is taking a toll on everyone.

And from Jeffrey Cook: I know these are complicated times and it’s important for everyone to stay as safe as possible.

That being said, I feel it’s crucial that the children continue in-school learning. At this age, it’s so important for the children to be interacting with other kids and their teachers.

The statistics show that children have a 0.001 (percent) chance of getting sick from this illness, basically just another version of the common flu.

If you decide to go back to “virtual learning,” which was a complete joke, my daughter and I will be moving somewhere that she can go to school and get the education she and all the kids so desperately need. There are plenty of states continuing in school learning without issues.

Please do the right thing for these kids and let them stay in school, where they belong!