Public Education Department Changes School Quarantines To Align With CDC Guidance


 Balancing new medical guidance with the Omicron surge, the Public Education Department today announced shorter quarantine and self-isolation requirements for students and staff.

 Quarantines are reduced from 10 days to five for students and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19, and self-isolation is reduced from 10 days to five for those who test positive for the virus. Both changes align with guidance issued Dec. 27 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adopted Jan. 6 by the New Mexico Department of Health for the general population.

 The updated guidance now requires a booster shot for school staff members to avoid quarantining if identified as a close contact. Previously, educators were not required to quarantine if they had completed the primary series – two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

 Those are the major changes in an updated COVID-19 Response Toolkit for New Mexico Public Schools, which the department released to superintendents and charter school leaders late Tuesday and to the public today.

“School-based infections are still relatively low, and we are cautiously optimistic that most schools can continue safe in-person learning with these modifications,” Public Education Secretary (Designate) Kurt Steinhaus said. “We remain committed to keeping students and school staff safe and healthy while maximizing opportunities for in-person learning.”

In addition to the new toolkit, the Public Education Department sent a memo Tuesday to school leaders recommending that all schools implement their Enhanced COVID-Safe Practices to mitigate spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. 

With 440 infections reported by schools on Tuesday and hospitals warning of a critical shortage of available beds, “those who need care may not be able to receive it,” the memo said. 

In the fall, New Mexico public and private schools were required to develop and post a plan of Enhanced COVID-Safe Practices to implement in case of a COVID surge. The goal is to keep as many schools open for in-person learning as is safely possible.

The Public Education Department is monitoring school-based COVID cases daily, and sends notifications if case numbers reach 3% of a school’s population. The notification recommends implementing the Enhanced COVID-Safe Practices. If case numbers reach 5%, a school is required to implement the Enhanced CSPs.

As of Tuesday, 12 of New Mexico’s 847 public schools were above the 5% threshold. 

The Test to Stay program is unchanged in the new toolkit except that testing now occurs on days one, three and five or on days two, four and five. Previously, testing was on days one, three and five or two, four and six. 

The Test to Stay program allows school close contacts to continue coming to school and participating in school activities if they test negative on prescribed testing days.

In the memo, the Public Education Department assured school leaders that despite test shortages nationally, the Department of Health has secured adequate supplies of rapid antigen tests to implement the Test to Stay program. The state’s testing contractor, Premiere Medical Group, has increased staffing but absences due to COVID infections have caused interruptions in testing schedules, the memo said.