It’s still early in the game, but so far New Mexico’s universities are showing that with diligence, leadership and effective planning there can be a combination of virtual and, albeit limited, in-person learning during this time of COVID-19.
Three weeks into the fall semester, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University have managed to avoid the virus outbreaks that have hit places like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Central Florida. While those two universities recorded more than 700 cases each, UNM as of Wednesday had logged just six cases since school reopened on Aug. 17. Five were students and one an employee. NMSU had reported seven active cases this fall among students, plus two employees.
This isn’t luck.
First, the number of students, staff and faculty on campus is limited. At UNM, that number is about 2,500 a day in offices, dorms and other facilities. They fill out an online health questionnaire every morning to screen for COVID symptoms. While there is some in-person learning, most is still online. But you can hardly do effective work in a science laboratory via remote.
And there have been major lifestyle changes as the leadership teams have pushed to create a culture of accountability – of doing the right thing. Students have been given new conduct codes that require them to wear masks and socially distance. The schools are making efforts to monitor off-campus behavior so they can respond to reports of big parties. Both UNM and NMSU have been in contact with fraternities, sororities and dorm residents to warn against large gatherings – and to let them know there could be consequences for those activities, even if held off campus.
There is aggressive contact tracing and quarantine after positive tests.
At NMSU, researchers are working to create a system for testing wastewater for signs of the virus.
UNM is sending “mask ambassadors” throughout campus to encourage healthy habits, and both UNM and NMSU have created large outdoor seating areas where students can study or socialize at a distance.
“It’s a community effort to help ourselves as an institution,” a UNM spokeswoman says. “This is what it takes for all of us to be successful. There is a desire for people to watch out for themselves and for other people.”
Call it “Protecting the Pack.”
“The leadership at UNM and the (Health Sciences Center) worked diligently (over the summer), says Carla Domenici, director of finance and administration for strategic initiatives, who has been named the school’s COVID coordinator. “I think that hard work and thoughtfulness has worked.”
Meanwhile, at Western New Mexico University, COVID tests were required for all 217 students moving into residence halls. The nine positive cases were then quarantined, and contact tracing located two more. N.M. Tech and Northern New Mexico College have zero positives so far, and N.M. Highlands’ mandatory testing of student athletes uncovered seven.
Lori McKee, director of health and wellness at New Mexico State University, says that when “we came back to campus there was a risk” and that they have worked hard to mitigate it.
So far, it’s proving to be a risk worth taking.
The hard work and smart approach by university leaders – and students – is paying off. They deserve both thanks and congratulations.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.