BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos Public School Board voted Monday evening to make COVID-19 masks optional for Los Alamos Public Schools with the exception of preschools and on school buses.
In a detailed slide show on how the current situation came about, Interim Supt. Jennifer Guy said on Thursday, February 17, the governor announced that she was lifting the requirement for face coverings to be worn in indoor space effective immediately and that the indoor mask mandate remains in effect for congregate settings, hospitals, long-term care facilities and detention facilities.
“In her order it clearly states that decisions on masking in schools will be left up to governing school bodies which may elect to keep or suspend masking requirements and so that health order went into effect. The schools were not notified that this was even a possibility. We received our first notification of 23 minutes after the press conference so we were surprised,” she said. “The reason given in the governor’s press release was the continued drop in hospitalizations and the lessening of the burden on hospitals. She said with vaccines, boosters and effective treatment options widely available, we have the tools we need to protect ourselves and keep our fellow New Mexicans safe.”
Supt. Guy noted that LAPS then received got a memo from Public Education Department stating that the indoor mask mandate has been lifted and that masking policies are now the purview of the school or district. It said pending further update, all COVID-safe practices and other requirements regarding testing or quarantine remain in effect as outlined in the COVID-19 Response Toolkit. She said PED acknowledged the governor’s change and that PED said everything else in the Toolkit remains in effect.
“They also added some additional considerations and these are some of the things I would like the board to be mindful of this evening as you consider this decision. Even if we change masking requirements, PED highly recommends that those who are participating in Test to Stay are required to wear a mask during the 5 days of Test to Stay and that those returning to school from a COVID infection after 5 days of self-isolation continue to wear a mask on Days 6 through 10,” Supt. Guy said. “They reminded us that the day of symptom onset is Day 0 and if the individual is asymptomatic the specimen collection date is Day 0. The LAPS nurses are well aware of this policy and that’s the way they have been implementing test to stay. In addition to that, PED said their memo is an amendment to their Toolkit and remains in effect until the Toolkit is amended to include their updated guidance.”
She said LAPS expects to get those updates sometime next week and that all other COVID-safe practices and requirements in the Toolkit remain the same, including the requirement for staff and contractors who are not up-to-date with their COVID vaccine and booster to provide a weekly negative test result. She added that currently LAPS in 100 percent compliance with that requirement.
Supt. Guy said that because the school board is the governing body for LAPS, the board was advised to hold an open meeting to consider the options on Feb. 21 to allow for 72 hours to post notice of the meeting and time for public comment. She said an all-staff and all-parent email was distributed seeking public comment.
Since March 2020, LAPS has followed all direction from PED, and in July 2020, the school board approved the work that the LAPS COVID Task Force did on the ‘Safe Start Report’ which said that LAPS would follow all PED directives regarding COVID-19,” Supt. Guy said.
“That initial work back in 2020 has provided a framework for all of our operating procedures moving forward and we continue to follow the public health orders and every COVID Toolkit update. In addition to that, each school site continually updates reentry plans under COVID regulations for each school site on a regular basis based on that guidance,” she said.
Supt. Guy said currently at LAPS online learning is available for all K-12 students.
“We are committed to working with individual families to provide the appropriate accommodations and to review IEPs on an individual basis. Our case counts at our individual school sites have continued to decline. All schools currently have infection rates below 3 percent. Many of those school sites are below 1 percent. LAPS has no cases of reported serious illness or hospitalization for COVID-19 at this time,” she said. “The state suspended the requirement to report positive cases on campus to parents. LAPS has chosen to continue to report to parents because we think it’s important our parents know what’s going on. LAPS currently has a good supply of PPE and COVID-19 tests. We still have COVID-19 testing available to all staff and students three days a week and two additional days through the school sites.”
Supt. Guy said after the governor’s announcement the district’s COVID Advisory Task Force was consulted on February 18.
“We wanted to discuss the changes in the mask mandate – everyone was surprised there as well – and the implications for LAPS. I want to be clear that some of the Task Force members were strong in their feelings that the governor removed the mask mandate too soon and were concerned about lifting the mandate. At the end, the group was in agreement that we need to review LAPS mitigation strategies to ensure that they are best practice and that we have the right strategies in place if the mask mandate is removed by the board tonight,” she said.
She said the Task Force discussed challenges the schools face with mask enforcement in light of the new orders and frustration with the abrupt change in policy with no prior warning to school districts.
“Everybody was frustrated in the group that we didn’t have a lot of planning time. It would have been great if we had a new COVID Toolkit in place as they made the announcement but that is not the situation we’re working with,” Supt. Guy said.
Co-President of the Los Alamos Federation of School Employees Christine Englebrecht discussed a survey the union conducted which determined that 62.3 percent of their respondents are in favor of optional masks. She noted that there is a strong minority of 37.7 percent and that it seemed like the biggest concerns as far as additional measures that should remain in place regardless are consistent cleaning, a review of ventilation and contact tracing.
“We have been in favor of being in person for both learning and working for students and staff as much as possible so we’re very in favor of a qualified stance of going for optional masking as long as masking remains a factor that we can put back in place should we experience heightened numbers and as long as there are substantial mitigating factors still in place to accommodate the minority of our membership,” Englebrecht said.
Supt. Guy noted that as of Monday, 84 percent of 7-12 graders are vaccinated and 54 percent of prek-6 graders. She said in reality those numbers are probably slightly higher because it takes a while for the state numbers to catch up.
“If your student has been vaccinated we encourage you to share your vaccine card with your school nurse so that we can get that logged into our system,” she said.
Supt. Guy reminded he board that masks continue to be required for students and staff on school buses under the governor’s order and that the LAPS doesn’t have any control over that.
“Preschool is an area of concern for us so one of the things I would like for you to consider tonight as you make your decision is that many of our students in our 3Y and 4Y programs are not yet eligible for vaccination so we are recommending that students and staff in these programs continue to mask indoors when in close contact settings when children are present,” Supt. Guy said. “We will continue to make accommodations for those little kids that cannot wear masks due to a disability or health condition and will work with families individually but we think it’s important that we continue to protect these youngest learners.”
She said the COVID Task Force has been discussing for the last three weeks how to move into some long-term mitigation measures and is looking at a tiered response to make it easy to flex between levels of mitigation depending on the ebb and flow of the virus in the community.
“They had been expecting to finalize that document but because of the new Toolkit coming next week, they paused that and are reviewing the measures and will take them to the board as soon as the new Toolkit comes out and will release those mitigation measures to the community as soon as they get directives from PED,” Supt Guy said. “They do not expect to see a clear percent threshold and expect to be told to look at individual schools and classrooms so there may be places where for example we have a higher rate of transmission and need to go into different mitigation measures in that school while we have a really low rate of transmission in another school.”
Board President Melanie Colgan said she had been overwhelmed by the number of comments the board had received.
“At the same time, that reminds me that we are lucky to be in a community where we have so many folks who are concerned about the wellbeing and education of our children,” she said.
Colgan said she decided to start with the facts when making her decision. She noted that in the state, 74 percent of the population ages 5 and above are fully-vaccinated and that in Los Alamos 88 percent of ages 5 and above are fully vaccinated. At LAPS, she said 97 percent of staff are fully vaccinated and boosted.
“We saw that as our children get older our vaccination numbers get even better and by the time we have seniors in high school, we have over 90 percent of our students vaccinated. Those are really good numbers overall,” she said. She also noted the decline in hospitalizations in the state and that case numbers in Los Alamos County have dropped by 41 percent in the past two weeks.
Colgan said that LAPS has additional safety nets besides masking.
“We follow the COVID Toolkit put out by the governor and PED. We have accessible testing for all of our students, teachers and staff. We constantly remind and teach our students to wash their hands, to stay home when they’re sick. We offer flexible attendance policies for those children who do have to stay home when they are ill or exhibiting some sort of symptoms. We have plenty of PPE on hand for teachers and students,” she said.
Colgan said LAPS is going to promote having class outside and eating outside. She noted that more picnic tables have been ordered for every school site. She also discussed the quality of the ventilation systems in the schools and said that for those few classrooms where the ventilation systems are a little lacking, there are air purifiers in those classrooms and even more are on order for teachers who would like to have an extra air purifier in their classroom.
“I believe that we are at the point where individuals can choose whether or not to wear a mask. Masks will continue to add an extra layer of protection. There’s no denying that. It is still a really good idea to mask. I would never suggest otherwise, but we’re in such a good spot with our numbers and our mitigation measures that we can allow people the option to either take that extra layer of protection or remove the mask and try to get back to some sort of normalcy that we keep talking about,” Colgan said. “I feel that this is an outstanding opportunity for our students to learn about personal responsibility and respect for other people’s decisions. I feel that our administrators, our teachers, our parents, and yes, the students will all be responsible for creating an environment where the decisions to both mask and unmask are respected.” She said there should be no shaming in either case and that she believes that LAPS can handle the change with the core values of Barranca Mesa Elementary School – “Support Kindness and Integrity”.
“That’s what we need to show each other and our children as we continue on through this pandemic. So for all those reasons and because I feel we are capable of this as a community, I do support the idea of making our masking optional at this moment in time,” Colgan said.
Vice President Christine said she understood the concerns for all the children with medical issues.
“Everyone has concerns. Everybody has issues. Everybody has something that is important to them. No one person’s concern is more important than another’s. It’s going to be a very difficult balance to find. This district will always work hard to accommodate our children. We have proven we can do that and we will continue as a district to make sure that our children are getting the education and accommodations they need,” she said.
Bernstein said she thinks the data shown helped to support giving people the option to wear masks.
“I do agree that we have to all respect each other’s decisions. It’s important that we all recognize that everybody’s needs are different and they are all valid and that if anybody needs to be comfortable that they have to right to do so. We do need to move forward,” she said.
Bernstein noted that if there was no COVID, there is pneumonia, flu and colds that visit LAPS every year and that the district has managed to make it through all of that.
“Now that COVID is lessening down for us and starting to become more normalized, we’re moving in that direction. As long as we keep those medication practices in place, we will be able to manage this. We’ve done very well in our community,” she said.
Board Secretary Antonio Jaurigue said masking is a very heavy topic.
“I can’t take it lightly. I am happy that we are taking the time to meet in an open meeting obeying the Open Meetings Act and giving the public 72 hours advance notice. That is the level of transparency that I value in government,” he said. “The number is decreasing and we’re on a downward trend. I think it’s important to note during this discussion that the downward trend is coming off some really high numbers. We had a spike. To say that the numbers are decreasing, we need to take into account that they are decreasing from the very high numbers we saw in January.”
Jaurigue said the governor has removed the state mandate and if she does reinstate the mandate in the future he thinks the board should give that order equal weight to LAPS rescinding of the current order.
“There have been many concerns raised and the one I see most is about individuals that cannot be vaccinated who are at increased risk. I really appreciate the increased protocols for the preschools because that’s one I couldn’t even think of an answer for – the preschoolers that can’t get vaccinated,” he said.
Jaurigue spoke to “ All of the community watching”.
“Our kids are watching us also and they are learning by our example. If we use strong language and we make fun of masks, or on the other side, if we speak of other people that are not wearing them as somehow horrible, we are showing our kids how to do the same. We need to be respectful and lead by example. Having adults still wearing masks may help kids that are not ready to remove theirs. Some kids are not going to be comfortable. I personally am still going to wear a mask. We need to remember to be kind and understanding of each other. I know from the many emails I read that we’re not all on the same pages, but wherever you stand on this topic it’s important to remember respect and kindness. We are all part of Los Alamos,” he said.
Board Member Ellen Specter thanked Jaurigue for his “heartfelt words”.
“I agree with all of those sentiments. I wish that the governor had given a week or two of planning time rather than this abrupt change. Change is hard and we all have different levels of tolerance for it in the best of time. But here we are and we have to deal with what we have right now,” she said.
She expressed gratitude to teachers, students and staff for all of their hard work and sacrifices to keep schools open and to keep education going over these past two years. She also said she honors and admires the community for being so involved and that she appreciated all of the feedback.
“Our mode of operation during the whole two years has basically been to follow the governor’s health orders and the Toolkits and rely on the expertise at that level. Our own COVID Task Force is divided. Our staff is somewhat divided. For me the biggest dilemma is, as others have mentioned, our medically fragile, immune-compromised students, staff and families and of course our under 5 year olds,” Specter said.
Board Member Erin Green said as she navigated through all the really strong feelings about the masking issue, she had realized that the biggest thing is for her is that her personal opinion is not part of the equation.
“I’m elected to represent and serve the people in this community and they have collectively been speaking out and I can see that there is a majority that are ready to move toward optional masking and that needs to be acknowledged and that really needs to be sat with as we make this decision,” she said.
Green said in the board’s last meeting, she spoke about a holistic approach to COVID-19 and sustainable moving forward and one thing that she had noticed even in the 72 hours since the governor announcing the change and “really pulling the table cloth off the table for all of us”, is that every single conversation that she had with leadership, administration and Supt. Guy is included the holistic approach,
“The holistic approach is about individual needs, how are we are addressing the students, teachers, parents and the community based on their unique, individual needs and safety and that this is something that’s not going away. How are we moving and treating each person in the unique and individual way that they need. I think that is deeply integral to a holistic approach to creating sustainability,” she said. “This concept of returning to normal – unfortunately I don’t know if it’s ever going to be normal again – but I think that we can work together as a community to create guidelines and norms and boundaries for all of us to feel safe and healthy and that is going to be my priority in every discussion and I’m really seeing that being brought forward by the district. I really admire that that is at the heart of everything.”
Jaurigue again mentioned that kids are watching adults.
“This issue has become so complex that I hope that we can find a way to come together because receiving emails that are name-calling board members, that are disparaging and downright disrespectful from community members is incredibly disheartening and I state that in this public meeting because everyone should know that we are people too and we don’t deserve to feel unsafe in our communities regardless of what our decision is tonight,” he said.
In her final comment, Specter said that if the board was to extend the “forced masking” for a couple of weeks she felt like what she had learned from staff and from the leadership was that “that would be two weeks of quite a bit of loss of learning due to mask policing and the power struggles over that”.