As COVID-19 infection rates continue to drop, many school districts in New Mexico are in a position to be able to reopen schools under a hybrid model if they choose to. Santa Fe Public School District is among those that have been given the green light to bring kids back to the classroom as early as next week.

But just because it can, doesn't mean it will.

To help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the public-school system, SFPS plans to start a childcare program for employees that will be active until the end of the calendar year. As of now, remote learning is set to continue for the district through late October.

The Public Education Department guidelines for a district to reopen call for the entire state to be meeting gating criteria, plus daily cases in the district's county must be under 8 per 100,000 with a test positivity rate of less than 5% over a 14-day average, and the district's reentry plan must have been approved by department. In addition, the district must demonstrate that it has adequate support resources for students and staff.

"The biggest commonality between those that got approved is that whether we have to be in a hybrid model, a remote model or a full reentry, they had thought through what the elements were going to be in place to successfully operate in any of those areas," said Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart at a New Mexico Reentry Update livestreamed via Facebook on Thursday.

"We know that flexibility will have to be the name of the game as we continue to fight this virus," he continued, adding that approved plans also had strong strategies for communicating with parents if someone in a school tests positive.

A color-coded map showed Santa Fe County is in the green zone, free to reopen after Labor Day. However, the district intends to stick to the plan outlined in its reentry model, waiting nine weeks past the start of the school year to test the hybrid model.

Amid concerns that school reopenings in other states are already leading to new COVID-19 infections, Stewart also outlined the state's requirements in case a student or staff member does test positive.

If the case or cases are limited to an individual class, that classroom will be closed for cleaning and all students and staff in the class will be asked to quarantine for 14 days. If cases spread across the school the whole building will be closed for cleaning and the close contacts of all positive cases will have to quarantine.

The New Mexico Department of Health plans to keep track of rising metric trends in each county to see if they are school-related, and will report new cases in schools on a daily basis, said Stewart.

The state is also helping districts acquire PPE. In the next weeks the NMPED plans to distribute 200,000 masks across the state, and by the end of September, said Stewart, the department will acquire an additional 1.1 million masks for public schools.

At a SFPS school board meeting later in the evening, board members voted in favor of a new policy to provide emergency childcare to district employees.

The results of an internal survey indicate that at least 200 district employees are in need of childcare, said district Superintendent Veronica Garcia.

Board President Kate Noble said she's still working on partnerships with outside organizations to make more childcare options available to non-district employees as well, and pointed out the widespread impact of lack of childcare on workers in Santa Fe who are risking their employment to take care of young children who would otherwise be in school.

"I hope we never again forget the connection between schools and people's ability to go to work," she said.

The new emergency childcare program for district employees will be open to children under the age of 12 and will automatically terminate at the end of December, 2020.

The state's childcare resource and referral line is open to anyone. It is 1-800-691-9067.