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Lt. governor holds roundtable discussions with government, education, business leaders

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‘Unified voice’ vital to attaining desired goals by curbing spread of COVID-19


New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, second from left, speaks with Artesia Public Schools (APS) Athletic Director Cooper Henderson, far right, Tuesday at the APS Administration Building. (Photo Courtesy James Farrell)

New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales sat down Tuesday in Artesia with representatives of the local government, education and business sectors to discuss the city’s primary concerns as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate.

During a series of roundtable discussions at the Artesia Public Schools (APD) Administration Building, Morales heard from city officials, including Mayor Raye Miller, Mayor Pro Tem Terry Hill and City Councilor George Mullen; a wide variety of APS leaders, such as Superintendent John Ross Null, Athletic Director Cooper Henderson, and principals from all levels of the education system; and members of the business community, including Artesia Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Hayley Klein, Chamber executive and Central Valley Electric Cooperative Manager of Distribution Engineering Wade Nelson, and Eddy County Commissioner and local small business owner and realtor Jon Henry.

“It was an excellent day as far as getting information, sharing some feedback, and getting an idea of what the priorities are in the community,” Morales said. “From the first meeting to the very last meeting, I could see just how unified Artesia is in their highest priority, which is ensuring that our children are going to be educated properly and concern about their academic and emotional well-being.”

Due to a high COVID spread rate in the region, the APS — along with the rest of Southeast New Mexico — was ineligible at the start of the school year in late August to enter the state’s hybrid learning model, which consists of a mixture of remote and in-person learning for students in all grades. The local school system instead began in remote learning mode, in which students in grades 4-12 attend virtually, while students in grades pre-K through third grade alternate virtual learning with staggered in-person classes in small groups two days per week.

Counties were made aware that a reversal in the upward trend of community spread would allow their school systems to make the switch to hybrid learning, but unfortunately, as more and more individuals continued to disregard health guidelines, the situation trended in the opposite direction. That is now the case not only in Southeast New Mexico but other parts of the state as well.

While schools in other areas were able to begin the year in hybrid mode, some — including, it was announced this week, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe — are now planning to transition to remote mode due to steadily increasing COVID-19 cases.

In addition, school-sponsored activities and athletics were already on hold statewide until at least Spring 2021.

“We expressed that, for many kids, school is the safest environment,” Null said. “We have many essential workers in our region, parents that have to go to work, and that results in kids being left home alone or an older sibling may be having to look after younger kids.

“Also, we expressed the need for equity across our state, where our school board, our administrators, our families have the opportunity to choose to participate, for example, in hybrid learning just like some other counties across the state have been able to do.”

Null said emphasis was placed on the “social and emotional health” of local students.

“That has been challenged by this remote setting, where they are not able to participate in class with their teachers and with their classmates, and also participate in athletics and activities, which, for many students, are the reasons those students apply themselves in class so they can participate in those things,” said Null. “It means so much to their education, and also just the challenge that families and teachers have to motivate students to do their best on their grades. […] The longer that kids are out of school, those challenges are just going to be compounded.”

As a former educator and coach, Morales understands the concerns of school officials and spent the largest portion of his time in Artesia with the APS via two separate meetings for elementary and secondary representatives.

“He really does get the challenges that we are facing, and he really is advocating for a return of more kids to in-person learning,” Null said. “Not that we can just throw the doors open and all the kids come back to school, but he is advocating for more kids to have the opportunity for in-person learning and the opportunity to participate in activities and athletics. He certainly knows the value of those things.”

Morales said he was presented with the perspectives of not only local school officials but parents and students as well and that the APS shared with him “some startling data” regarding failure rates. But while the lieutenant governor empathizes, both parties said they are aware that reopening schools and resuming activities to the degree desired by everyone involved remains contingent upon controlling the spread of the virus — particularly with the state’s hospital systems reaching unsustainable capacities.

“It can’t be a matter of waiting till schools are open or activities resume to really promote these safe practices,” Morales said. “We need to promote those now and really ensure that we can get these numbers down. I think that this is the first step that I think is going to be critical in finding ways to work together to get beyond the spikes in numbers that we’re seeing right now.”

“[Morales] expressed to us that the reality is that this is still going to be based largely on the number of cases and positivity rates that are occurring in communities and counties across our state, so he certainly encouraged especially the wearing of masks and then asked us as community leaders to support that and encourage that,” Null said. “Which I do.”

Null said he invited the lieutenant governor and other officials to witness the precautions being taken within the district and the methods used by the APS when positive cases have surfaced to isolate those individuals and immediately notify any close contacts.

“He’s very supportive of that, but again, he did stress the importance of communities banding together to wear masks and limit gatherings and social distance to the greatest extent possible,” said the superintendent.

The mayor, meanwhile, said that he may have surprised Morales in that he also placed his primary focus on the local schools.

“I think he was a little surprised that the city didn’t have more concerns about gross receipts or any of the other issues we’re facing,” Miller said, “but I told him that the thing I hear about everywhere I go, the thing that’s on more folks’ minds in the community, is getting kids back in school.”

Miller said the visit between himself, Hill, Mullen and Morales was a good one and that other issues were discussed, including the quick turnaround for funding to be distributed to local businesses through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the city’s ongoing litigation with the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department over erratic gross receipts tax payments.

“I was very pleased that he would come and visit,” Miller said, pointing out the benefits of establishing relationships in light of the possibility that Morales would take over as the state’s governor should Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham be offered a position in Washington, D.C. “And it’s a thing where, thankfully, he comes from the Silver City area, where they have a lot of mining, and he can recognize some of the economic issues of an oil-and-gas area and wondering what the future holds.

“It’s also a thing where he was a coach at Cobre High School, so as a result, he has more concern for education and our students. My hope is that they can figure out a way where, after the first of January, we can put the kids back in the classroom or at least give the school districts that option.”

Morales said that one of the most prevalent requests he’s heard from civic leaders in Southeast New Mexico is that “communication be an ongoing part of the process when decisions are being made.” He said that many officials have asked for “some solid strategies to finding ways that we can resume, to learn to live with COVID, but to make sure that it’s done in a positive, safe way.”

Morales also wants southeastern New Mexico residents to know that he values their perspectives and thoughts and that he is listening, “not in any way to lecture but to learn and to see how we can approach a COVID-safe world by doing this together.”

“I don’t want this to be the first and only discussion,” Morales said. “I want to have ongoing communication with our rural communities because they have brought a lot of possible solutions for what we can do together.”

For his part, Morales said his primary request to area leaders was simple: Present a united front as it pertains to curbing the spread.

“We all want to move in the direction they’re requesting and advocating for, so my request is that there be a leadership tone that’s set that’s adhering to the strategies that made us successful in the past as far as bending the curve,” Morales said. “We have to do that with a more unified voice. And they assured me that that was going to be part of the discussions they have to try to ensure that the public is aware of what needs to be done and that these things are important.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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