All public school students and teachers, as well as visitors, will be required to wear masks indoors while on school campuses or at school-sponsored events in Valencia County.

The New Mexico Public Education Department released an updated COVID-19 toolkit last week, mandating all individuals at the elementary school level must wear masks when in a school building, on the bus or at a school event.

“At the elementary, this is the standard. We can go above it, but I’m not clear how we would,” said Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez. “Schools may choose everyone to wear masks (at the secondary level) to reduce administrative burden. We don’t want our teachers and administrators to be the vaccine police.”

Secondary schools had some flexibility, with districts given the option to require only unvaccinated people wear masks indoors on school property.

At a special meeting of the Belen Board of Education on Aug. 2, members voted unanimously to require masks across the board indoors at the secondary level. Los Lunas Schools announced a similar decision on its Facebook page on July 27, requiring all students, staff and visitors on LLS property wear masks while indoors.

“At the middle schools and high schools, if you are vaccinated we have the ability to (not require) masks, but we started talking about ‘what does that mean logistically?’” Arsenio Romero, superintendent of the Los Lunas Schools, said. “It’s going to be really difficult to figure out who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated. How is a teacher going to know that?”

In addition to the PED toolkit, the CDC released guidance on July 27 advising all individuals, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, to mask-up in public indoor settings as the case numbers for the Delta variant of COVID-19 rise across the United States.

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommended that everyone wear masks in all school settings, primary and secondary, regardless of vaccination status.

“With us only having about a week before school starts, it was going to be safer for everyone and also because some of the processes aren’t established yet, we’re going to go ahead and start off the year with everyone wearing the mask.” Romero said. “But, we will reevaluate that monthly.”

PED does not require masks when students, staff and visitors are outdoors on school property, such as during P.E. or athletic activities, however Romero said that masks are still recommended.

At a July 29 board workshop discussing COVID-19 guidance for schools, the Belen Schools superintendent said PED has directed districts to incorporate certain caveats into their student discipline policies, specifically that districts cannot suspend or expel students for not wearing masks.

On the first offense, the student will be sent home. A second offense will result in a written warning and parent/guardian contact and after a third offense, there will be a conference between school administrators and parents/guardians and the student will be removed from in-person learning and alternatives discussed.

Los Lunas plans to implement similar disciplinary action for students that choose to forgo their masks, as directed by PED.

The School of Dreams Academy is following suit, requiring all students of all grade levels, staff and visitors to wear masks while at the school until further notice.

“It’s less complicated than trying to determine, you’re vaccinated, you’re not, you need to prove you’re vaccinated. How do you disclose it to everybody so they know?” said Michael Ogas, superintendent. “It just seemed to be easier.”

He added that all of the elementary students will be required to wear masks outdoors, contrary to the PED guidance, however they will be optional to secondary students while outdoors.

The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus also implemented a mask mandate for all individuals on campus regardless of vaccination status. UNM also announced on Aug. 2 all students, faculty and staff accessing university facilities must be vaccinated from COVID-19 no later that Sept. 30.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.

Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.