A historic year, learning loss threatens recent educational gains

Even by the most optimistic standards, the logistics of learning in 2020 have been difficult, if not close to impossible, for a significant number of New Mexico students. Technological challenges have combined with trauma caused by COVID-19’s deadly rampage through hard-hit populations, especially the state’s Indigenous communities, to disrupt classrooms and educational plans. More than 32,000 students — or one of every 10 enrolled in public education statewide — have been referred to a state-sponsored coaching program, many for being disengaged, regularly missing classes, or in danger of failing one or more classes. Less than a quarter are participating, however. And more than half of those, or 5,173 students, are in need of the most help, according to the state education officials, meaning they endure significant on-going barriers and are receiving regular interventions, sometimes daily.Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart and his staff didn’t mince words about the severity of the challenge in a December presentation of the education agency’s 2022 budgetary request to state lawmakers. 

Learning losses caused by the pandemic — particularly for at-risk students, which make up a majority of New Mexico’s student population — will likely weaken already low student outcomes, according to the 13-page memo.“Additionally, school closures and remote learning have had a dramatic impact on enrollment in many school districts, leading some school district leaders to worry about the pandemic’s impact on their school district’s finances,” they added.The state education agency went on to ask the legislators for $4 million in emergency funds, citing the possible need for additional grants in light of enrollment shifts in school districts and increased costs related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID disparities force a public health reckoning

The coronavirus feels the way it looks in widely circulated images, said Cleo Otero: like a thorn. “That’s how it felt inside my body, especially my lungs. It was painful. Like it was scratching the inside of your body. I could really literally feel the virus inside my body.” 

Otero’s first clue she was sick came at the laundromat in Albuquerque where she usually buys a bag of spicy chips as she waits on her clothes.

Images show reality in El Paso that must be seen

Workers and guards outside an El Paso mobile morgue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Claudia Silva/New Mexico In Depth

It felt surreal pulling into the cemetery next to the University Medical Center of El Paso. Large trailers with doors flung wide open are lined up outside the medical examiner’s office tucked away just down the street. The trailers house rows of shelves holding the overflow of those who have died of COVID-19. As Texas has reached over 1 million cases, the border city of El Paso has become a hot-spot, some calling it the new New York, with one of every 20 to 30 people estimated to be positive. 

As the situation has worsened the city’s prisoners have been asked to help handle the dead.

Governor orders New Mexicans to shelter in place

Starting Monday, in an acknowledgement of how bad things have gotten, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced today during an online update that we’re returning to sheltering in place. That means everyone must stay home unless they work in an essential business, or need to go out for groceries or medical care. 

And she announced she’s calling the New Mexico Legislature into a special session within days to help New Mexicans struggling to keep food on the table, pay their bills, and stay in their homes. And to help businesses survive. 

We’re experiencing the greatest emergency our country has seen, Lujan Grisham said, and with no federal guidance and support, that means she has to take action, dismissing notions that she should follow the lead of other states that aren’t closing businesses, she said.  

The overwhelming need, right now, she said is for New Mexicans to shelter in place to fight the spread of the virus. 

That means her own family isn’t getting together in person for Thanksgiving, she said, so that they’ll be intact and whole for the Thanksgivings to come. 

But far too many families will come together, and will then come together again for a funeral, she said. “It’s not worth the risk. It’s not worth the risk.”

Those were my thoughts exactly a week ago when I pulled the plug on visiting my family for Thanksgiving.

COVID complicates college prep for Native students

It’s a crisp late afternoon in Northern New Mexico, the kind of day that invites you to drive with your windows down or chop firewood in preparation for winter.If this were a normal year, Marisa Gutierrez might not register the seasonal change. The 18 year old is usually beyond busy. But this is 2020, and the high school student body president, cheerleader, community organizer, and aspiring valedictorian is feeling cooped up.And pondering lost opportunities.Earlier this year the pandemic killed a conference she had hoped to attend at Emory University in Atlanta for Native American students across the country.The teenager, who is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 23 Native American tribes, yearned to visit an out-of-state college campus.“I have been on college campuses before but nothing outside of New Mexico,” she said.  She felt for her peers, too, knowing the missed opportunity it likely represented for many.“I’ve had the advantage and opportunities to see a bunch of places, but a lot of people, specifically Natives, aren’t usually accustomed to looking outside of their Pueblo or outside of their tribe,” she said. “And so I think that would have been a great opportunity for them to experience, kind of, life outside the rez.” 

But the missed opportunity hasn’t knocked the high achieving Gutierrez off her quest.

The virus’ wake-up call for New Mexico

Nearly seven months into a mostly successful fight with COVID-19, New Mexicans are having to digest the unwelcome news that the virus isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it seems to have discovered its second wind.Twice in as many days this week the number of daily infections has shattered New Mexico’s single-day record. And as we did in March and April, suddenly we’re hearing that COVID-19 might overwhelm our state’s health care system if we’re not careful. Hospitalizations have jumped 74% since Oct. 1 and some intensive care units in Albuquerque are already full.Gatherings of more than five people will be illegal starting today and establishments that sell alcohol must close at 10 p.m., according to a new public health order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that extends through Nov. 13.In addition, New Mexico will require travelers coming from high-risk states to quarantine for 14 days instead of allowing them to avoid the isolation if they test negative, as was the previous practice.“I cannot be more clear: The moment to turn the tide has to be right now, immediately, or else we face accelerating significant illnesses and needless deaths for hundreds of New Mexicans,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said in a press release.

NM jails report 900 new virus cases since June as population numbers tick back up

New Mexico’s jail population dropped by a third earlier this year as officials agreed to incarcerate fewer people to avoid the spread COVID-19. But the population has crept back up since June and infections have soared among both inmates and staff from 37 cases by early June to nearly 970 as of September 25, according to government data reviewed by New Mexico In Depth. It’s not clear whether more crowded jails, along with their decreased chances for social distancing, has spiked the case numbers. Virus cases have dramatically increased in a handful of jails in counties where cases have remained stubbornly high outside the walls — and officials say inmates are entering the jails already infected, identified by testing as they are booked. 

But the increases in cases and populations have renewed discussions about how to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further inside jails and the communities they serve. Officials hope to repeat the success of the low infection numbers through the pandemic’s first few months, when law enforcement, judges, jail administrators, prosecutors and defense lawyers cooperated to keep jail populations down.