Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Education Matters: The Pandemonium of Pandemic Schooling


I am a co-founder and the co-owner of The Paper. For the last decade, I have also worked in education law and policy—at the school district, state and federal levels. Now I work directly with public schools through my own education law firm. "Education Matters" will be a monthly column about K-12 education in New Mexico.

In the Toolkit

If it seems to you like the rules around in-person schooling during the pandemic are constantly changing, you are not alone. For the entire public education system, from government to schools to families and students, schooling during the pandemic has been chaotic and confusing. So this first column is about in-person schooling right now and the questions I am most frequently asked about it.

The primary source of requirements on school operations during the pandemic for traditional public and public charter schools serving K-12 students is the “Toolkit” issued by the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED). This Toolkit changes and is updated frequently as NMPED makes decisions, new laws and new policies. In fact, it was updated just hours before this story went to print.

On the subject of masks, the Toolkit requires that all persons on a school’s campus, on school transportation and at school-related events—regardless of age, position, or vaccination status—wear an approved face covering such as a surgical or multi-layer cloth mask. There are, however, exceptions to this including, as an example, when eating and drinking. Also, while mask-wearing by unvaccinated staff and students is encouraged when outside on a school’s campus, outside at a school-related event or during outdoor physical education, masks are not required.

There is also a mask-wearing exemption for a person who cannot wear one due to a medical reason, 504 plan or IEP (Individualized Education Program). Additional documentation may be necessary to receive this exemption.

Masks are pretty straightforward. However, social distancing gets more complex. The Toolkit requires that adults who are not vaccinated “maintain six feet of social distance to the extent possible from other adults and from students.” Students who are not vaccinated are to “maintain three feet of social distance to the extent possible, except when eating, exercising, taking mask breaks, playing wind instruments, and singing or shouting, in which case six feet of social distance to the extent possible is required.” However, it goes on to say that, “If schools do not have a means of differentiating enforcement of social distancing requirements based on vaccination status, then all students, staff and visitors are to maintain social distancing requirements.”

I also frequently get asked about vaccine mandates. While there is no current vaccine mandate for students or for school staff, 100 percent of school staff who have not provided proof of vaccination are required to be tested for the virus every week.

These are just a few of the many requirements of the Toolkit right now for in-person schooling. The most complex and changing requirement by far is under what circumstances a student or staff member must leave school and isolate or quarantine. So much so that it could be a column all on its own. We've included the November 1, 2021 Toolkit below.

*This article is not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as such.


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