The state Public Education Department on Monday released its COVID-19 safety guidelines as staff and students prepare to return to classrooms — some as early as next week.
Changes in the long-awaited guidelines include a shortening of physical distance requirements and heightened testing requirements for unvaccinated school staff.
The guidelines also ease face mask requirements for vaccinated students in middle schools and high schools. But masks will continue to be required in all elementary schools and for anyone who is unvaccinated or fails to provide proof of vaccination, the education department said in a news release.
The state is directing schools to provide masks for students who need them — and those who refuse to wear them will be quarantined from their peers and sent home from school.
Schools also will be able to create their own disciplinary measures for those who violate mask rules, but the measures cannot include suspension or expulsion.
Schools no longer will be required to report COVID-19 cases recorded on weekends and holidays, but in response to the results of surveillance testing of asymptomatic people, the state is increasing testing mandates.
“Until vaccinations are available to children of every age it will be incumbent on each of us, in school environments, to do everything we can to minimize risk — that includes face coverings,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news release issued by the education department. “Various studies and federal data show have shown school environments are and can be safe.”
The state guidelines — which do not require vaccinations for staff or students — come more than a month after the agency told districts the information would be available and less than two weeks before Santa Fe Public Schools opens its doors.
Santa Fe Public Schools begins classes Aug. 6 and anticipates it will release its districtwide guidance “in the upcoming days.”
Last school year, 663 cases of COVID-19 were identified in schools across New Mexico through surveillance testing.
This year, the state is asking schools to maintain voluntary testing programs that hold a weekly goal of testing 25 percent of all unvaccinated students participating in after-school programs, such as sports. The previous goal, according to the state, was to test 1 percent of the overall student population and 10 percent of students participating in extracurricular activities.
All schools are now also required to test a quarter of unvaccinated staff members each week as well.
Students wearing masks may now get within 3 feet of one another, but 6 feet of distance will be required between adults and students.
The state also announced school-related events like assemblies and dances will be permitted, with masking requirements and social distancing for unvaccinated people.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez was unavailable to respond to the new guidelines Monday afternoon, but spokesman Cody Dynarski said the district would be hosting community and staff town hall meetings before the end of next week when school starts, to discuss COVID-19 requirements.
At Pojoaque Valley, Superintendent Sondra Adams said the new state guidelines contained few surprises. She did express concerns, however, about how students might be able to easily pick out who and who is not vaccinated based on who is wearing a mask.
Online learning will be required to remain available for students and staff who have a disability that might make then unable to wear a mask in school. The guidelines also say that those who won’t wear masks must either opt to learn online or to learn outdoors.
Administrators at Santa Fe Public Schools have encouraged students who want to learn online to register for its K-12 online option, Desert Sage Academy.