From left are Joseph Harris III, Joseph Harris Jr., Dominic Harris, Rubel Harris, David Harris Sr., and David Harris Jr. The four boys are ecstatic to be able to honor their grandfather, the late county lawman Joe Harris, by going to the school that was named after him. Joseph III and Rubel are in kindergarten; Dominic and David are now second-graders. Joe Harris Jr. and David Harris Sr. are Joe Harris’s sons, posing with their sons. The district’s newest elementary school opened last Monday for hybrid learners. Courtesy photo.

Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland said the district’s 11 elementary buildings and Shining Stars Preschool had “a pretty smooth opening” last Monday, as students returned to the classrooms for the first time since last March.

In her defense, Cleveland may not have heard about a young boy that was lost for a short time; the youngster had boarded the wrong bus, leading to a brief search by Rio Rancho Police and district officials, until he was located, returned to the school … and all had a good night.

“Happens on the first day of school,” explained Beth Pendergrass, chief communications, strategy and engagement officer, who made her presence known at the virtual board meeting when she lauded one of the city’s newest businesses, Dutch Bros Coffee, for its $5,000 donation, which she said will be for schools’ food pantries, supporting those students with meals who do not have enough food at home.

“We’re a community that really enjoys coffee,” quipped board member Noreen Scott.

There was more traffic than usual around the school sites, Cleveland noted, as more parents prefer driving their students to school instead of having them on a school bus.

Cleveland led the meeting off with information about the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority, noting school districts are already facing three-year increases for health insurance premiums. Although the legislature has been encouraged to work to get that increase put off for the pandemic-delayed 2020-21 school year, Cleveland warned the increases for the next two years would have to make up for it.

In an interesting account of COVID-19 patients, Cleveland said, 15 to 20 percent with COVID go to the hospital, with an average charge for a hospital stay ringing in at $73,300 — compared to the average cost for a patient with insurance, $38,221.

As for the district’s liability, Cleveland said not to worry about lawsuits, warning staffers throughout the district, “(You) could be on your own for liability.

“It’s really important that we follow the rules,” she said, “and that’s what our plan is, to follow the rules,”

When a COVID-19 positive shows up in the district during a week when students are present on campus, RRPS has four hours to notify the PED and state Department of Health; if it’s a staff member, the state Environment Dept. must be notified.

“We have not had a positive case in quite a number of weeks,” noted Human Resources Executive Director Mike Chavez.

To date, RRPS has had just two confirmed positive COVID-19 cases so far, “and those were in staff members before we had any students on campus,” said Communications Manager Melissa Perez.

Cleveland told the board, with all five members present online, that the state’s Public Education Department was expected to send some of its staff to check out RRPS buildings now open.

And in other 2020-21 school year news — often termed “fluid” — she said the roster size for classrooms has been reduced again, this time from 15 to 7 students, again requiring some schedule juggling.

She said the district’s first trimester ends Nov. 7, when any necessary adjustments can be made before the next trimester starts.

“Classes are pretty full, both in-person and virtual,” Cleveland said.

“We’re still looking for teachers and teacher interns,” she added.

Although nothing has been confirmed, and it’s only termed a “guess,” middle school students might return to the classrooms in 4-6 weeks, and high schoolers 4-6 weeks after that.

Rio Rancho Elementary counselor Sara Spradlin checks the temperature of a youngster exiting a school bus at the school last Monday morning.
Photo Gary Herron / Observer

More on COVID-19

There was more COVID-19 related news at the meeting, including teachers must be tested, on a random basis, for COVID-19 — with 5 percent, or about 133, treated each week.

Chief Operations Officer Mike Baker said the shortage was worse last year, and Chavez said vacancies were reduced from 160 to 130 in the previous two weeks.

“There are 130 openings right now,” Chavez said, which included 66 teacher openings, but “No schools are in particularly dire straits.”

Also, with the PED’s urging that all schools use HVAC filters rated MERV 13 or better, Baker explained.

(MERV is the acronym for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value; MERV rating is an indication of how efficient the filtration media is: the higher the MERV rating the smaller the particles the filter captures.)

Baker explained that most of the district’s HVAC systems cannot handle those filters, and “MERV 8 filters are in place in most of the buildings.” The ventilation systems are being turned on three hours before school days and for three hours after students exit the buildings. Those “introductions of fresh air,” Baker said, will cost the district an additional $250,000.

“We will go as high (in MERV) as we can possibly go,” Cleveland said. “We don’t want to burn out the systems.”

The district will also be getting a new, improved website, Pendergrass told the board, after requests for proposals garnered 10 interested firms and that Apptegy, Inc., had been selected after weighing the merits of all 10.

Implementation of the new website, which Pendergrass estimated will be online next summer, will cost $14,000 “up front” and $58,300 annually. She noted that the current website, which requires a lot of work by her and her staff that will be eliminated by Apptegy, costs more than $55,000 a year.

The board approved the Apptegy RFP 5-0.

Lastly, the board approved, also 5-0, Policy 750, which deals with specifics and protocols during the pandemic.

Cleveland said she hopes that policy “goes away” for the 2021-22 school year, which, hopefully, will be without current COVID-19 restrictions and mandates.

Also during the meeting, it was noted that 18 public comments had been received, and of those received in time for the Sept. 14 meeting, seven were in favor of opening the schools, two were opposed and there were nine regarded as miscellaneous.

The board’s next virtual meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 28.