SANTA FE – New Mexico education officials released updated guidance on COVID-19 case reporting, masking requirements and vaccine considerations for K-12 schools this fall.
The new rules rolled out Monday give vaccinated students more chances to take off masks. It also allows them to avoid quarantines if there’s an outbreak on campus.
Schools serving only middle or high school students can choose to allow vaccinated children to go without masks in most situations.
“Our priority is to keep children in school, and it’s great news that the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance shows that secondary students and staff who are vaccinated can safely attend school without masks,” said Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart. “It’s one more positive change in the trajectory of this pandemic, and this guidance is possible because these vaccines are so highly effective.”
But deciding which schools can unmask won’t be easy and could hinge on vaccination rates.
Under the new guidelines, local school officials are allowed to require universal masking in any school, even among students who volunteer proof of vaccine status in the form of a card or a screenshot of a Department of Health confirmation.
Only 36.9% of children aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Department of Health. Schools have been sponsoring vaccine events throughout the spring and summer.
Elementary schools will require all students to be masked. Students 11 and younger cannot yet get vaccines.
The percentage of adults who are fully vaccinated varies by county, with some metro areas like Santa Fe at around 73% while rural areas around Carlsbad are at around 40%.
Some middle school students are too young to receive the vaccine. School officials will have to decide if it’s safe to allow unmasking in classes with 11-year-olds.
Schools that allow unmasking must track who is vaccinated and who is not on a voluntary basis. Schools could include vaccination status on student IDs, the guidelines suggest. If implemented, the IDs could serve as a sort of vaccine hall pass for classrooms and sports events.
The guidelines map out a balancing act for masking enforcement, prohibiting punishment for children who simply do not have a mask while requiring children to be sent home if they refuse to wear a mask provided to them.
“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 – and that includes face-coverings,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
New Mexico health officials on Monday reported 632 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and three additional deaths. That pushed the state to 209,118 cases and 4,400 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.