A rural New Mexico school board was suspended by the state Public Education Department on Wednesday for defying Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s mask mandate for children as schools prepare for classes to resume this month and COVID-19 cases continue to rise again.
The five-member Floyd school board voted last week to make masks and social distancing optional and reaffirmed its decision in another vote Monday despite warnings from state officials that they could face suspension or other enforcement actions.
The district’s superintendent has been ordered to report directly to outgoing state Education Secretary Ryan Stewart.
Stewart said in a memo to the board members that the state agency has a responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all staff and students.
“We cannot put students, staff and their families at unnecessary risk as we continue the fight against the Delta variant,” he wrote in a memo to the board. “By ignoring these basic safety measures, the board impairs the ability of the district to offer safe and uninterrupted in-person learning opportunities.”
Debate rages across state
There has been much debate across the state among parents, lawmakers and school boards about mask requirements when students return to school. Some of New Mexico’s largest districts already have opted to impose the state’s guidelines, but some critics have raised concerns about parents not being given a choice.
An Albuquerque Public Schools school board meeting ended early Wednesday when a crowd of anti-mask protesters kept disrupting the meeting as board members were being briefed on the school district’s COVID safety plans for the upcoming school year, said Monica Armenta, a spokeswoman for the school district.
All students, employees and visitors must wear masks while inside APS buildings, whether they are vaccinated or not.
Santa Fe Public Schools is also requiring masks to be worn inside school buildings and school buses.
Meanwhile, the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education voted 3-2 at its special meeting this week to allow vaccinated secondary students the option of not wearing a mask in school, once they have shown valid proof of COVID-19 immunization.
Those students will have mask passes, which they can show their teachers or administrators, to go mask-free. Unvaccinated secondary students must wear masks.
All teachers and students at Rio Rancho elementary schools will have to wear masks per state rules.
Epicenter of fight
The tiny town of Floyd – which has a little over 100 residents – for the last week has become the epicenter of the mask fight in New Mexico. Top Republicans on Wednesday aligned themselves with the defiant school board, which serves about 225 students in eastern New Mexico near Portales.
“The Republican Party stands shoulder to shoulder with the Floyd School Board and all other boards that refuse to accept these statewide orders from Santa Fe,” said Steve Pearce, the chair of the Republican Party in New Mexico.
House Republican Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia called the state’s move unfortunate given that New Mexico is just days away from schools reopening.
“Instead of politicizing and headline grabbing, I sure wish that the governor and PED would have implemented a serious plan to address the learning gap and the myriad of other issues that have been exacerbated during COVID,” he said Wednesday, adding that school districts are being used as pawns by Santa Fe bureaucrats.
Republican Sen. David Gallegos of Eunice, who serves on another local school board, said the Floyd board did what they were elected to do.
“They represented the best interests of the children in their district,” he said. “This gross violation of local authority is disrespectful to the students and families of Floyd and may even be a violation of New Mexico law.”
Before issuing the suspension, the education department said Stewart called the Floyd school board president and offered assistance to establish an outdoor learning program and to facilitate conversations with public health experts.
State health officials Wednesday also announced another 609 confirmed infections, marking the highest number since March.
While New Mexico’s infection rates are still lower than the peak in mid-November, the recent increase comes amid a nationwide spread of the highly contagious delta variant. The uptick also follows the state’s July 1 reopening, when the governor lifted statewide business restrictions.
Lujan Grisham has mandated that all state workers be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, and the state has started its second round of vaccine incentives in hopes of getting more people to take the shots.
About 65% of residents 18 and older have been fully vaccinated, according to state data.
Journal staff writer Ryan Boetel and Rio Rancho Observer staff writer Gary Herron contributed to this report.