All students and staff at Santa Fe Public Schools will be required to wear face masks indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when classrooms reopen Friday, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez announced Monday.
The decision comes as the faster-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus continues to push case numbers higher in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico. The delta variant — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described as more contagious than chickenpox — has taken hold in New Mexico in the past month, just as public school staff and students have been preparing to begin the 2021-22 year with classrooms fully open and in-person learning as close to normal as possible after a year and a half of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chavez said masks will be considered optional outdoors for students and staff at Santa Fe Public Schools. But inside buildings and on buses, they will be required for everyone — regardless of age or vaccination status.
The rule also applies to extracurricular activities, such as sports.
The mask requirement brings the school district in line with recommendations the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued last week, just a day after the state Public Education Department released more lenient guidelines. The state’s rules ask schools to ensure elementary students are masked indoors, but so far allow middle school and high school students who are fully vaccinated to forgo wearing masks.
“Our first priority is to ensure a safe learning environment for both students and staff,” Chavez said in a statement Monday. “As we get ready to welcome students back on August 6th, we want everyone to be protected, especially those who cannot yet be vaccinated. Requiring masks inside of school buildings and on school buses is the best course right now given the current status of the coronavirus.”
The Albuquerque school board voted last week for a mask requirement for all students and staff.
Chavez said in an interview Monday evening the Santa Fe district’s decision was made without a vote from the school board and was based in part on feedback from staff, school board members and the community.
Unless the New Mexico Public Education Department alters its COVID-19 safety guidelines, Chavez said, families shouldn’t expect any other changes to the district’s rules for classroom learning.
Santa Fe school board President Kate Noble said she was relieved by Chavez’s decision.
“Personally, I think it’s way easier to enforce it with a bit more consistency,” she said.
Grace Meyer, president of the National Education Association-Santa Fe, did not respond to messages seeking comment on the mask rule. Last week, however, she predicted the district’s rules would be more stringent than the state’s.
The district is hosting a virtual town hall Tuesday night on YouTube to discuss reopening plans. Topics will include the mask requirement, Desert Sage Academy opening as the district’s K-12 online option, personal protective equipment and surveillance testing for COVID-19.
Chavez said district administrators will take questions from community members through the streaming service’s live chat.
They are likely to face some opposition to the mask mandate.
A few dozen people who gathered Saturday at Alta Vista Street and St. Francis Drive said they were protesting the Public Education Department’s COVID-19 guidelines, issued July 26.
Lauren Becerra of Eldorado said she wouldn’t send her 6-year-old to school if he had to wear to a mask.
“Kids can’t breathe,” Santa Fe resident David Mulberry, another protester at the event, said of masks.
At least three teachers from Santa Fe schools attended the protest.
Last week, the Public Education Department said administrators would review the CDC recommendations issued July 27. As of Monday, however, state education officials had not indicated whether they would make changes to the public school guidelines.
Coronavirus case counts in the state have escalated rapidly since early July. Between Saturday and Monday, the state recorded 1,076 new cases. That compares with a three-day count of 636 the previous Monday and 301 on July 13.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, the state reported just 203 cases over a four-day period, from Saturday to Tuesday.
According to the New Mexico Department of Health, 74.9 percent of residents in Santa Fe County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
County numbers for kids ages 12 to 17 were not available, but statewide, just over 21 percent of kids 12 to 15 are vaccinated, and 42.8 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds are inoculated, state data show.
No vaccine has received federal emergency authorization for children under 12.
Chavez said Santa Fe Public Schools is still working to update its disciplinary policies for those who violate the mask requirement.
The district also is trying to find ways to collect voluntary data on vaccination rates among staff and students. Chavez said that data could be used to update the mask rule at the end of the month.