Albuquerque school stays ahead of the curve on COVID protections

Every single building at the Montessori school has filtration and ventilation to slow the spread of coronavirus

By: - April 28, 2022 5:00 am

Portable air filtration systems like this one can be found in every classroom at Escuela del Sol Montessori School in Albuquerque. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

At the end of the school day on Wednesday at the private Escuela del Sol Montessori School, a student sits reading in a large classroom, right next to a portable air filtration system.

Two large fans twirl overhead, and two sets of double doors are open, allowing fresh air to circulate through the space.

The classroom extends out onto a large courtyard with tables and chairs surrounded by garden spaces filled with light from the late afternoon sun. It’s warm now, but in the winter, there are heaters that allow outdoor classes to continue.

(Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Located in the Wells Park neighborhood of Albuquerque, Escuela del Sol serves as a kind of model as a school that implemented public health measures to protect its students and staff.

School administrators here were ahead of the curve.

“Now schools are required to implement filtration systems, but at the time, when we started to do this, there was no guidance whatsoever, or even a recommendation that we get filtration systems,” said Kate Chavez, the school’s executive director.

They created outdoor classrooms. They started opening doors and windows. They put up fencing to keep groups of students in “pods” to prevent spread throughout the entire school if anyone got infected.

The school’s building and facilities supervisor analyzed the airflow in every classroom and office space early on, Chavez said.

The primary classroom is housed in the newest building on campus, which is still 21-years-old. That building’s central air system on campus has a MERV-14 filter, a step above what the state’s Public Education Department recommends.

Every other building on the campus has portable filter systems. Some of the buildings are 100-years-old, so their central air systems can’t fit state-of-the-art filters.

Escuela del Sol Executive Director Kate Chavez and Administrative Director Elizabeth Marcilla stand in an outdoor classroom Wednesday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Child-centered learning

Only recently have parents been allowed back on campus, said Administrative Director Elizabeth Marcilla. She’s also the school’s designated COVID officer.

“We went an entire school year without having a case generated from campus,” Marcilla said.

Chavez and Marcilla believe that improving the quality of the indoor air at their school “absolutely” helps with other health issues on top of COVID-19.

“Anecdotally, kids didn’t get sick as often,” Chavez said. And there are no longer waves of illness when one person gets something like the cold or the common flu, Marcilla said.

Montessori classrooms are designed to support children’s intrinsic desire to be engaged with their environment and work in a purposeful way, Marcilla said. That means classes at Escuela del Sol are mixed ages.

“So the younger children see the older children doing the more advanced work and activities, and hopefully displaying more advanced social-emotional behavior,” Marcilla said. “And the older children are great models for the younger children and get a great deal of esteem from helping the other children, showing them things.”

The school has 170 students and about 45 employees. It serves students aged 18 months through eighth grade.

A portable air filtration system and a discarded nitrile glove in a meeting room at Escuela del Sol Montessori School in Albuquerque. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Changing circumstances

Esquela del Sol kept most COVID protections in place, too, even as most of the rest of the country seems to have moved on and some parents at the school disagreed.

The hardest part about when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate was “the guidance disappeared,” Chavez said, which left individual school administrators to make decisions.

“It had been very helpful, where COVID has been so political, for so many people in so many states, to be able to say, ‘This is the guidance from PED, it’s not my decision,’” Chavez said. “That made it really easy.” 

As soon as the mandate disappeared, the school was inundated with emails from families expressing polarized concerns, she said.

Some parents didn’t want masks to go away until every single person at the school was vaccinated, while others wanted masks gone the very next day, Chavez said.

“To suddenly be put in the position of having to make a call, with this plethora of information, it has also been helpful to have some partners in our community that we can reach out to and say, ‘The CDC is saying this, but like, can we actually trust what the CDC is saying, Or is this a political decision?’” Chavez said.

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Even as New Mexico lifted its indoor mask mandate and the CDC stopped recommending masking in most settings, Escuela del Sol made masking optional but started providing free N95s to anyone who asks for one.

School leaders doing testing themselves

During the omicron wave at the end of 2021, Premier Medical Group, the state’s COVID testing contractor, was stretched so thin that there were days they needed to do testing at as many as 200 different schools across New Mexico, so they just could not show up to Escuela, Chavez said.

So the school worked with Premier to train six administrators at Escuela to do COVID testing themselves. The school got a waiver in January that allows them to perform the testing and report results directly to the CDC.

“Especially since we have such a wide range of students, it was really important to us that we could test kids as early as possible in the school day, that we could work around naps and lunchtime and stuff like that,” Chavez said.

Esquela del Sol still runs a “test-to-stay” program, too. If a student or staff member was on campus and positive, everyone in that classroom who is not vaccinated gets tested at least three times per week, Marcilla said.

One of the few remaining pandemic requirements from PED is surveillance testing, Marcilla said. Surveillance testing is not to diagnose but to collect data that allow school officials to know the status of the pandemic and plan for the near future.

The science behind why schools should be removing COVID-19 from the air

If there’s an exposure on or off campus, a student is required to quarantine for five days and wear a mask when they return.

“We did have a few cases on campus a few weeks ago that generated from off-campus,” Chavez said. “Between filtration, masking, and test-to-stay, there was no spread on campus.”

Anytime anyone is out for any illness that might include a COVID symptom, the school requires either a medical provider’s note, two rapid antigen tests taken within 48 hours of each other, or a negative PCR test, Marcilla said. That is all based on the fact that people can still spread coronavirus even if they are not showing symptoms.

Credit to community

Chavez and Marcilla spent a lot of time researching COVID protections, but they also credit the school’s practices to the parents, most of whom have sought the vaccine, Marcilla said.

“We’re also very lucky that we have experts in our parent communities,” Chavez said, including an epidemiologist who helped them decipher CDC guidelines.

Even with all the COVID protections still in place, Chavez and Marcilla say they remain open to input about how to do better. They also tend to finish each other’s sentences.

“I feel like we’re always trying to do the best we can,” Chavez said.

“And stay ahead of the curve as much as possible,” Marcilla finished.

One of the buildings at the Escuela del Sol Montessori School campus in Albuquerque. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.