By Mary Alice Murphy

At least 23 members of the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce participated in a Zoom call to hear about plans for local schools.

The two chamber member schools took part, with Chamber President Sabrina Pack introducing Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard and Silver Consolidated Schools Associate Superintendent Curtis Clough.

Shepard said he has served at Western for 10 years, having arrived in July 2010. "If you told me when I came that we would totally shut down the campus, I would have said that will never happen and here we are."

He cited three reasons for stopping classes at the university in the spring semester: 1) COVID-19; 2) the economic downturn; and 3) social injustice. What happens in November could exacerbate the situation, he said.

Shepard's Zoom background was a photo of the Grand Canyon. "I chose it because it was sculpted slowly by water and formed a great landscape. It's what we do on a day-by-day basis that matters. On. Aug. 20, some of our students came back to campus. We have about 200 students on campus at this time. Yes, there have been some COVID cases. They have quarantined after arrival. Those who have tested positive, all asymptomatic, we isolate and take meals to them, plus we do contact tracing."

"Up until Sept. 8, our classes are all virtual, except for very few," Shepard said. "Then we will go to a hybrid method, with perhaps Monday, Wednesday and Friday in person or maybe virtual. Nursing and Fine Arts are not easy to do virtually. We are following protocols for those classes. The hybrid will be in effect from Sept. 8 to Thanksgiving and then after Thanksgiving we will go back to virtual. With the student scattering everywhere, there wouldn't be time for them to quarantine and get any work done before Christmas break. Some students will continue 100 percent virtual for the entire semester."

He said all sports have been postponed to the spring semester. "This semester the athletes are doing strength training and conditioning. Studies out there show that kids being on campus allows better monitoring than if they were at home. Right now, the tests cost about $150 each and it takes about seven days to get results. We're hoping to get the Abbott Lab tests that take as little as 5 minutes to test and cost about $5 each."

Shepard noted that even if a vaccine is developed, it will take years to prove its efficacy. Health care practitioners and first responders will get it first.

"We have implemented reopening the campus and you can read about how we did it on our website,," Shepard said. "Our faculty and staff are working from home. The last time I checked Grant County was still under 80 cases, including the university. We will continue to shop locally. Now is the time for us to band together."

He noted that higher education has changed. And he said New Mexico, including Silver City and Grant County have outstanding police forces. "We pledge that to prevent social injustice education is key to stopping the nonsense that is going on. We have to be a little bit proactive. I encourage you to vote. It's a question of where we want to go."

Shepard said the university budget is down, but enrollment stayed about the same with about 140 students fewer this semester, and credit hours are about 5 percent down. "COVID has changed education. We need to invest, and we will cut some expenses. We will definitely continue with our social work and nursing programs, as well as our business and education degrees. We are grateful for the community and the businesses that support us."

Chamber Director Steve Chavira had gathered questions for the two educators.

The first came from Nick Sussillo who asked given that that coronavirus cases, according to the New York Times, are going up at universities, what are the schools doing?

Shepard said right now Western is 100 percent virtual. "And with the probable upcoming layoffs at the mines, we also want to have programs for the miners. On Sept. 8, we will be 100 percent hybrid." He also said that it is likely that there are thousands across the country who have the virus and don't know it.

Another question posed by Chavira on behalf of the sender, asked if there would be fewer students per class and if there would be a 30 minutes break between classes for the classrooms to be cleaned and disinfected.

Shepard said each classroom is limited to 25 percent capacity, with social distancing and required mask wearing. "We have fumigated every building on campus and we'll clean between classes."

Clough said his answers would be very similar. "In March, K-12 education changed forever. The teachers have met the challenge. On July 13, we made the decision to continue remote learning until after Labor Day. Every district has had to submit its re-entry plans and pieces to the PED (Public Education Department). We resubmitted today, reiterating the completely remote learning until Sept. 8. After that date for Pre-K through 6th grade, we will have a hybrid program, with some students coming back to class on some days. For Middle School and High School, their return to partial class days will happen later. We will do trainings for the students on wearing masks and washing hands. We have to do a rigorous protocol to scan for temperatures for entry to the classrooms. We will also specify isolation places for students that require them. The students will be divided alphabetically, with A-L and M-Z, each having two days of in person classes and three days virtual. Parents have the option to choose all-remote learning. We are offering that flexibility. Right now, about 54 percent of parents want the kids returning in the hybrid model. We are waiting eagerly to the governor's remarks later today."

[Editor's Note: A report on the presentation and the revised public health order can be read here ]

He noted that some school districts, such as the Albuquerque Public Schools, have announced they will continue all virtual education through the semester.

During the Silver Schools hybrid model, Wednesday will be deep cleaning day every week, as well as deep cleaning every afternoon after the students leave. "The facilities will not be open to the public, although we will have some volunteers pre-allowed."

"We will try to prevent any spread coming into the buildings," Clough said. "Data will drive when the Middle School and High School students can start in-person classes."

As for sports, the New Mexico Athletic Association has put out protocols and has been an active participant, according to Gary Allison from Silver High School. "They have established a no-contact period until Sept. 28. After surveys were complete, it showed that every district wanted its own autonomy on the dead period. We decided on Sept. 14. Coaches are communicating with their athletes through remote means. We are making our decisions based on the safety of the students and staff. I hope we can go hybrid. When we do come back face-to-face, we will have five participants to one coach, and all have to wear masks 100 percent of the time. The NMAA has revamped the entire schedule. At Silver High School we will have cross-country and volleyball for the fall semester, and the other sports have been moved to the spring, and that's only if we use the hybrid model. If we remain virtual, there will be no sports participation. Some competitions can continue, for instance, National History Day will be only virtual."

Clough said the teaching staff members are looking at virtual club participation. "The STEM and robotics clubs at the high school are meeting virtually, as well as the elementary robotics club, which is also virtual."

He said when teachers move to complete virtual teaching, it usually takes two years to work it out. "We've done it in four months. But elementary students especially need to face-to-face learning. What happens if there are Labor Day or Thanksgiving case spikes? Bouncing kids back and forth between models is not good for anyone. We are making sure we are doing everything in a systematic way. We have done a lot of training and we appreciate the teachers taking part. We expect to release more protocols. The city and the county have worked on connectivity for families. We have had great collaboration, with this county stepping up for kids. Right now, we see light at the end of the tunnel, with the train heading toward us or toward neverland, we aren't sure."

Clough said he knows they have talked about extended class breaks as the questioner asked. "For elementary, we will clean during recess. For middle school and high school, we will clean during lunch times, with hourly breaks. They may not be 30 minutes, but we will have breaks and we will do sanitization and hand hygiene. Desks will be six feet apart and masks will be required."

Another questioner asked what happens when a family has limited internet at home.

Clough said T- Mobile had offered 50 free hotspots, and the schools had purchased 50 hotspots from T-Mobile and Verizon. "We had to submit an application to provide the hotspots to students who are part of the lunch program, are in poverty and where multiple kids live in the house. T-Mobile stepped in big time. We will also have hot spots at parking lots at Cliff and at La Plata. Verizon has worked with us on connectivity. Western New Mexico Communications is also keeping hot spots available around town."

Chamber member Steve Chiang of TechOnDemand said he is about to start implementing a complex-wide wi-fi system in 32 buildings for the Western Regional Housing Authority, with the first on Silver Street and two more in the works. "There are a lot of things going on. There will be about 200 houses connected in public housing."

Chavira noted that business partners, like Chiang, are a big part of the effort to get people connected for virtual learning.

"I have been asked why Cobre Schools and Aldo Leopold Charter School were not involved in this presentation," Chavira said. "Western and Silver Schools are involved in the chamber, so we did them first. Maybe later this year or next year, we can involve them."

Clough answered questions he has been asked about dual enrollment. "Cuts were made to higher education and public schools. We lost our dual enrollment funding, but we are making sure that, with NexGen funding, dual enrollment is happening. We will work with high school classes for college credit alignment and we can also make them eligible for high school graduation credit. I thank the support we've gotten from folks at Western."

Pack asked if anyone had announcements or comments.

Laura Phelps, Freeport McMoRan strategic community development manager, said the economic uncertainty has impacted copper production. "Twenty colleagues at Tyrone lost their jobs recently. It's a somber time. At Chino, we have more than 800 furloughed. We sought input for extending the furlough to January. We got an overwhelmingly positive response, so we are looking at a restart in January. We will have a reduction in force of potentially about 400. Our only furloughs are at Chino and we will know more in January."

Chavira noted that the town of Silver City had passed its mask mandate. "We support 'I wear a mask because I care.' T-Mobile has sponsored 'Keep your distance on Labor Day.' On Sept. 15, the chamber will host a virtual Zoom networking meeting. I remind you that the Census deadline is Sept. 30. The county is running behind. Reach out to your sphere of influence and get 10 people to do the census."

He concluded by saying: "Stay safe. Stay masked. And Stay away."

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