Teachers union backs mandatory face mask policy

Pablo Angeles, a second-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Santa Fe, prepares his classroom for the start of the school year later this month. Santa Fe Public Schools are requiring staff, teachers and students to wear face masks indoors regardless of whether they are vaccinated against COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the rise again, leaders of a prominent New Mexico teachers union said Friday they support mandatory face mask policies for all students and teachers.

The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico union, however, stopped short of calling for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, but urged the unvaccinated to consider getting the shot.

New COVID-19 infections have surged in New Mexico and other states in recent weeks, with most cases linked to the contagious delta variant of the virus.

State health officials have expressed renewed concerns about an already strained New Mexico hospital system, as the number of individuals hospitalized statewide due to the virus increased to 296 on Friday – up from 83 hospitalizations a month ago.

There were also 798 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday, according to state Department of Health data, and five additional deaths related to the virus. Those deaths brought the state’s death toll to 4,446 since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March 2020.

Given that backdrop, face mask policies for New Mexico public school students and teachers have generated debate among parents, lawmakers and school boards.

While some rural school boards have chafed at the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, the AFT New Mexico union leaders said vaccination and mask-wearing are key to keeping schools open under an in-person model.

“While we are not, at this time, calling for mandatory vaccinations for eligible students or staff in K-12 settings, the fact remains that our ability to return to and stay in full-time, in-person education and instruction falls squarely on the shoulders of the remaining adult New Mexicans who have thus far resisted doing their part to fight and eradicate COVID-19 in New Mexico,” three union leaders said in a statement.

Meanwhile, state health officials also said Friday they were closely tracking federal agencies’ review of possible third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for certain people with compromised immune systems, including those who have undergone organ transplant surgeries.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week authorized the additional vaccine dose for such individuals and state officials indicated they’re likely to follow suit. As of Friday, a total of 74.6% of New Mexicans age 18 and older had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 65.7% of eligible state residents had gotten all doses necessarily to be fully vaccinated.

With reports of some people obtaining fake vaccine cards, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state officials said Friday such falsification is a crime and vowed law enforcement officials will pursue any reports received.

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