The state Public Education Department Monday, July 26, released updated COVID-19 guidance for next school year. The next day, the CDC released stricter guidance on masking for K-12 students in response to rising cases linked largely to the Delta variant. Education Secretary Ryan Stewart spoke with KUNM’s Nash Jones about building out new COVID-safe practices for the state’s schools in a shifting landscape.
RYAN STEWART: Throughout the pandemic, we've had three guiding principles that have really formed the basis of all the decisions that we've made. Number one is to make sure that we are protecting the health and safety of our students, our communities and our families. Number two – and this sometimes plays at odds with number one – is the notion that we know in-person learning makes a difference, and so we have to maximize the amount of in-person learning that we're able to offer. And then finally, those decisions really have to come based on what the science and the public health experts are telling us.
KUNM: Can you give us just a quick overview of what's changed in the updated guidelines from the last version, which was published in April?
STEWART: The big thing was the change in masks. The guidance that we put out had an allowance for those who are vaccinated in secondary schools not to have to wear a mask. Whereas, because elementary students haven't yet had access to the vaccine, that they still would have to do it. So, the one thing I do want to note, Nash, and I don't know if this is going to be your next question, yesterday, we did get information from the CDC that recommended masks for everybody to wear indoors, even at the secondary schools for vaccinated folks. So, we're still looking at that guidance, we're going to be talking with our public health officials about it. We may make some changes to shift in line with the CDC, but it's still too early to make a definitive call on that yet. There are some other important changes in there, as well, that we think are going to make things much more stable this year. And that includes changes that the CDC has made to the "close contact" definition.
KUNM: How has that definition changed? And what are your quarantining procedures compared to what some families may have become accustomed to last school year?
STEWART: So, in the last school year, the quarantine guidelines stipulated that if any infected individual was identified, that entire classroom would go on to the two week quarantine, pared down to 10 days. In the new guidelines, it's those who are within three feet for more than 15 minutes of another student over the course of a day. That may mean that the vast majority of the classroom does not have to quarantine if one individual, who was masked and socially distanced, has been identified as having the virus.
KUNM: And so now going back to the new masking rules. If a middle school or high school student isn't wearing a mask, how will staff at a school know whether they're vaccinated or not?
STEWART: So, we don't have blanket requirements on how you do it at that level. We certainly imagine, some schools, they're small enough where the individual teachers can know which of their students have and have not submitted their proof of vaccination. And there's some schools that are larger, where you may need to have some sort of visual cue, or you may need to have some system tied to the class roster. We certainly expect that we'll have many different ways schools operationalize it.
KUNM: But they do have to have a way, right, to track that?
STEWART: Of course. And if you don't have a way that you can implement it, schools do have the option to require universal masking. And that is in line with the new CDC guidelines.
KUNM: And what are some of the reasons a middle or high school might require masks regardless of vaccination status?
STEWART: One thing to think about – and be very proactive about – is community spread. If you're seeing a big uptick in cases, it may make sense to make sure that everybody has a mask so that you are protecting everybody to the greatest extent possible.
KUNM: COVID cases in New Mexico are on the rise due in part to the more-contagious Delta variant. According to The New York Times, average daily cases here in New Mexico have risen 125% in the last two weeks. If we see a surge of cases this fall, how is your department prepared to respond?
STEWART: We are putting in place all the measures to try to keep a stable, in-person learning environment for every student throughout the year. That's our goal and that's what we're preparing for. Should an even more contagious and more deadly variant really spike, we'll of course work with our public health officials and, if we had to make those decisions to protect lives, we will. But we're looking for a much more normal, much more stable year where we are continuing to mitigate the spread of the virus.