'It’s a balancing act': Area superintendents react to new COVID-19 protocols for public schools

Students are set to return to classrooms in August for the Fall 2021 semester

Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
  • The New Mexico Public Education Department released an update to the school reentry guidance on July 26, updating COVID-19 protocols for the Fall 2021 semester.
  • Central Consolidated School District Superintendent Daniel Benavidez told The Daily Times the district decided to require face masks for all students and staff while on district property, regardless of vaccination status.
  • All elementary school students, staff and all visitors are required to wear face masks.

FARMINGTON — San Juan County school district officials have raised concerns about state education guidelines, which include offering two tracks for staff and students who are vaccinated and those who are not when school starts in August.

One school district has already decided to implement a more restrictive mask protocol, requiring all students and staff to wear face masks while on school grounds.

The New Mexico Public Education Department released an update to the school reentry guidance on July 26, updating COVID-19 protocols for the Fall 2021 semester.

Pandemic recovery:Here's what you need to know about New Mexico's updated mask-wearing policies for schools

The Daily Times spoke to the four area superintendents to gain their perspectives on the changes and the importance of in-person learning as the United States enters its fourth school semester during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One topic all four superintendents touched on was the loosening of restrictions for students and staff who are vaccinated and the difficulty districts could face trying to manage two sets of rules.

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Tibbetts Middle School sixth grade students walk to their second period classes on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2021. It was the first day for hybrid learning for Farmington middle and high school students.

It comes as the Centers for Diseases and Prevention recommends K-12 students wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status as the Delta variant has started creating increases in COVID-19 spread across the country.

Central Consolidated School District Superintendent Daniel Benavidez told The Daily Times the district, with the input of school administrators, decided to require face masks for all students and staff while on district property, regardless of vaccination status.

Benavidez said he believed it would be the most equitable option as CCSD balances multiple government entities, operating as a New Mexico public school district on the Navajo Nation.

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Central Consolidated School District Superintendent Daniel Benavidez adjusts his hard hat prior to the groundbreaking ceremony on April 30 for new teacher housing behind Mesa Elementary School in Shiprock.

“It’s a balancing act for our district. We are trying to honor tribal sovereignty but honor some individual parents' choice and state guidance,” Benavidez said. “We’re one of the few (school) districts to balance state, federal and tribal interests, so we are doing our best.”

All elementary school students, staff and all visitors are required to wear face masks on school grounds by the state education department. 

Vaccinated students and staff at middle and high schools who volunteer their vaccination information to a school district are not required to wear a face mask, according to the state education department.

Those vaccinated could be required to wear a face mask if a district implements a more restrictive face mask policy.

The state education department does not require staff or students to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or reveal their vaccination status.

Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington school officials said they are reviewing imposing more restrictive mask rules but have not made a decision yet.

Aztec Superintendent Kevin Summers told The Daily Times it could, for lack of a better term, create a "Scarlet Letter” situation where some people are identified one way while others are identified another way.

Summers also raised concerns that certain powers given to school boards across the state are being stripped away, but added that Aztec schools will follow the rules from the state.

“Local school boards were elected for the creation of policy at a local level,” Summers said. “When you have statewide mandates like this, it kind of takes the policymaking perspective away from the board members but leaves us all with the liability.”

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Farmington Municipal Schools officials were still the reviewing the info released by the state and have been sending more questions to the state regarding the protocols.

“This document was only 19 pages but there’s probably 50 pages worth of questions,” Farmington Superintendent Gene Schmidt said.

Farmington Municipal Schools Director of Nursing Services Cathy McDonald shared a statistic indicating more than 90 percent of people inside an elementary school could be unvaccinated, based on state education data.

“In order to mitigate the virus, the (face) mask is one of the best ways to mitigate it,” McDonald said.

The state education department also told school districts to develop and implement a system to quickly verify who must wear masks and those who do not.

Farmington Municipal Schools HR Director Chris Pash described the difficulty of trying to monitor students in this capacity.

A scenario he described is having 400 students walking between classes, with half of them wearing a mask and half who are not.

“Is a teacher supposed to know which ones, is the principals supposed to know which ones are vaccinated or have that memorized? Do they all walk around with clipboards?” Pash said.

All four superintendents stressed it was important for students to continue in-person learning as students statewide enter the fourth semester of the pandemic

Bloomfield Superintendent Kim Mizell said she wanted to stress to the community that district officials are doing everything to keep everyone safe on district property.

Bloomfield schools expanded virtual learning by dedicating more resources, including a dedicated teacher in some grades who focuses solely on students in remote learning.

They have also made advancements to help monitor students to ensure they keep pace with those who are in a school building learning.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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