Down the street from my Rio Rancho home is a spacious community park that my family has not visited in weeks due to COVID-19.

When we go for evening walks to get my young daughters out of the house, the park is full of life — but not full of masks or social distancing. This keeps me up at night, for the doors to our schools need to reopen, and when they do, many of my teacher friends and colleagues will be waiting behind them with smiling faces, no matter the worry that resides in their hearts and minds.

As I continue my duties as New Mexico Teacher of the Year, I will not be back in the classroom until January. This doesn’t limit my concerns as a teacher or parent.

As the moderator of the recent educator town hall held by the New Mexico Public Education Department, I read thousands of comments from teachers across the state who have serious concerns about safety.

Yet, educators also long to be back in the classroom, cultivating the teacher-student bonds that are so essential for learning. While balancing the many sides of this story weighs heavily, there is no substitute for in-person connection.

Still, we should not put lives at risk. So I ask you, our New Mexico families, to do all you can to safeguard our schools so teachers can welcome students back with the confidence that all are truly safe.

A teacher friend recently revealed she has been ill with stomach issues and canker sores, and attributes it to her worry of returning to school. My social media feeds show teachers talking about increasing their life insurance and seeking out help with living wills.

These numbers may be lower than other states, but teachers and families are watching with concern.

Children cannot get the best education if their teacher gets sick. Substitute teachers already are hard to come by, and our current situation makes it more difficult.

We also must consider that Hispanics, Natives and African-Americans, who already are underrepresented among our teacher ranks, are at a higher risk.

Here are things the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that could keep teachers and students safe:

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

• Wear a cloth face cover in public and when around people who don’t live in your household.

• Wash your hands often with soap for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

• Avoid crowded places and close-contact settings.

The Journal of the American Medical Association released a statement stating, “Cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities.”

We must work together to not only put us on a path toward in-person school, but to also make sure that once students return, the focus can be on learning and emotional well-being.

(Mandi Torrez lives in Rio Rancho and is a third-grade teacher at Placitas Elementary; she is on sabbatical to carry out duties as the 2020 New Mexico Teacher of the Year. She is a Teach Plus Policy Fellow.)