Masks or no masks in the classroom?
With just days to go before the start of the new year for students in Santa Fe Public Schools, it still isn’t clear if the district will follow COVID-19 safety guidelines the state issued Monday or whether officials will opt for more stringent rules.
After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new recommendation Tuesday that all children wear face masks in schools to prevent the spread of the viral illness amid a surge of a more contagious variant, the New Mexico Public Education Department issued a notice saying it plans to stick to the guidelines it released a day earlier.
Those require masks for all elementary students and any students and staff who are not vaccinated but allow secondary students who are fully inoculated to attend classes unmasked.
The state’s guidelines include a new rule for surveillance testing of public school staff and voluntary testing of unvaccinated students who play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities.
Santa Fe district administrators said Monday they would release local guidelines in coming days, ahead of students’ return to classrooms Aug. 6.
School board President Kate Noble said the district’s guidelines will be determined by administrators. But, she added, the board and other school officials will take seriously the CDC recommendations.
“The CDC guidelines, you know, make it a bit more uniform and probably easier to operationalize,” she said.
Grace Meyer, president of the National Education Association-Santa Fe, predicted the district will go above and beyond the state guidelines. “Now that we have those guidelines, I think that our district will move towards more cautious implementation of that,” she said.
“We’ve had challenges with students wearing masks,” Meyer added.
She noted some students who have been vaccinated might choose to wear masks, especially if they have an immune system condition.
“We don’t want any bullying or anything to be happening to students,” Meyer said.
The state’s announcement of public school protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 drew ire from Republican state Sen. Gregg Schmedes, who says he believes in "focused protection" — a combination of targeted vaccinations and allowing those who are at minimal risk of death building immunity through infection — to reach herd immunity.
Schmedes said it “came as no surprise that a record number of New Mexico parents are removing their children from public schools” due to the safety guidelines. He said the set of rules “embarrasses and shames unvaccinated children and fails to accommodate COVID recovered students who have no need for vaccination.”
He urged more local control over coronavirus protocols as students prepare to return to in-person learning.
So do the 18 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last year seeking clarification on the rights of local schools versus the state public education secretary when it comes to decisions involving in-person learning during the pandemic.
The suit claims statewide restrictions deprived students in some schools — especially those in remote areas where lack of broadband access created barriers to online learning — from their constitutional right to an education.
A prominent plaintiff in the case is the Gallup-McKinley County school board.
Superintendent Mike Hyatt said he expects classrooms to operate similarly to the state’s guidelines when schools open there Aug. 18 — but he stands firm in his belief that local districts ought to be able to set their own rules.
“Obviously this toolkit has less directives than past toolkits,” Hyatt said. “… Our local school boards in New Mexico were elected by their constituents, and they are very well capable and able to interpret public health orders and to implement what is needed for their students and their unique needs.”
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly conveyed the views of state Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras. Schmedes says he believes in "focused protection" — a combination of targeted vaccinations and allowing those who are at minimal risk of death building immunity through infection — to reach herd immunity.