School districts and charter schools can choose whether or not to follow recommendations from the N.M. Department of Health on COVID precautions. (Getty Images)
With the end of the public health emergency on Friday, state rules for New Mexico public schools are easing up on safety standards for COVID-19 and treating it like other infectious diseases.
Mandates that previously required isolation periods or mask-wearing for people who test positive for COVID are no longer requirements and instead are recommendations. This comes from guidance by the New Mexico Department of Health that the Public Education Department is now directing local school districts to follow.
State public schools leaders adjusted their COVID safety measures to lay out requirements for local school districts to follow as the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, and changed plans to give districts options to determine how their schools prepared to bring back students, teachers and staff.
The agency gave new guidelines on Friday. It’s now up to local school districts to follow new recommended guidance from DOH, or not.
Spokespeople for school districts in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces said they will maintain certain standards like isolation or masking for anyone that tests positive for COVID, but will reevaluate in the coming weeks.
The state health agency utilizes the School Health Manual to outline health care and safety recommendations for public schools.
The big difference in the new guidelines is in the language that dictates recommendations rather than requirements.
The new model recommends that any staff or students with cold or flu-like symptoms get tested for COVID and stay isolated for at least five days if a test comes back positive. This was required before Friday.
The DOH manual also suggests now that anyone coming back to school after having COVID or even while being infected wear a mask. Those are also measures that used to be mandatory.
Contact tracing is no longer a requirement. Public Education Department spokesperson Kelly Pearce said measures limiting the spread of the virus are still encouraged.
“COVID is still a highly contagious respiratory infection, and all reasonable measures should be taken to limit the spread within your school,” Pearce said.
Although DOH recommends thorough cleaning and disinfecting areas or surfaces that someone who tested positive frequently touched, that’s up to the schools to do that or not. Before Friday, public schools had to shut down any impacted facilities or classrooms for at least two hours for in-depth cleaning.
The previous rules also required the Public Education Department work with each district and school to install high-quality air filters. It’s unclear if that will be maintained since it’s no longer required.
School officials who find positive COVID cases no longer are required to report to the Public Education Department. They are asked to report any new cases to DOH, as they did before, too.
Students don’t have to be vaccinated against COVID-19, unlike other infectious diseases. They are still required to have vaccinations for chickenpox, measles, meningitis, tetanus, influenza and hepatitis.
Even without that requirement, COVID now falls under the same umbrella as all of those contagious diseases in regards to how schools should treat cleanliness or a potential outbreak.
Another result of the dropped standards is that schools will be allowed to eliminate their COVID planning and response team as well as a point person who worked with the state when positive cases are reported in a school community.
Schools also had to have a COVID emergency plan, which included isolation and evacuation proposals.
The state isn’t requiring any of that anymore.
Miranda Durham is the medical director for the Department of Health Infectious Disease Bureau. She said the drop of the public health emergency changes the circumstances of requiring COVID precautions in schools, making them less obligatory.
“We don’t have any teeth to put behind the mandate,” she said.
She said people should really still be following these recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What we’re seeing is a little loosening of the language but not loosening up the intent,” Durham said.
Durham said these school rule changes are on par with the state in easing up COVID requirements and changing the intensity of public health orders around the pandemic.
Local district and charter schools can still set their own additional COVID requirements.
Many of the larger districts haven’t had the opportunity to discuss these new changes, yet, and are sticking to the old rules for now, like Albuquerque Public Schools.
Martin Salazar, spokesperson for APS, said no new decisions have been made for the district, though officials will probably discuss the procedure changes next week.
Las Cruces Public Schools also hasn’t talked about the drop in standards yet and is still following the old ones. Spokesperson Kelly Jameson mentioned that the national public health emergency is still in place, set to end in May.
There are also less than two months left in the school year, said Cody Dynarski, Santa Fe Public Schools spokesperson. Dynarski said that the school district will keep going as it has been with things like isolation periods and contract tracing requirements.
“Santa Fe Public Schools is gonna stay the course of how we are doing things,” Dynarski said.
Like other districts across New Mexico, he said school officials will reassess the standards in a few weeks.
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