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PED says school districts promised to follow COVID rules. So where’s the proof?

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PED says school districts promised to follow COVID rules. So where’s the proof?

Apr 28, 2022 | 6:33 pm ET
By Austin Fisher
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PED says school districts promised to follow COVID rules. So where’s the proof?
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The New Mexico Public Education Department said superintendents and school boards agreed in writing in 2021 to follow COVID-safe practices, including requirements by PED to install the best possible filters in school buildings to remove COVID-19 from indoor air.

But two weeks after Source New Mexico asked to see these written promises from the schools, PED failed to produce even one of them.

In interviews and written correspondence over the past two weeks, PED officials repeatedly said they collected “signed assurances” from all 89 school districts across the state. Those assurances are promises that schools are following the state’s COVID-safe requirements.

Department spokesperson Judy Robinson said it’s the responsibility of local school boards and charter governing boards to ensure districts and charter schools keep those promises.

“The district and school leaders who signed these assurances are responsible for meeting their commitments, and we have every reason to believe they are doing so,” Robinson said. “Our districts and charter schools are partners with the PED in keeping students and staff safe at school. We know they share that mission and that we all will continue to do everything in our power to prevent the spread of the virus in schools.”

On April 14, Source New Mexico asked PED for those signed assurance documents under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

Anticipating that there could be as many as 89 of these signed promises, one for each district in the state, Source New Mexico said PED could hand them over on a rolling basis as they are located. None have been sent over so far.

Fourteen days later, Records Custodian Beverly Friedman wrote a letter informing Source New Mexico that the department has deemed the request “broad and burdensome” and says it will furnish the responsive records by May 11 or sooner.

Update: Friday, April 29, 2022 at 1:30 p.m.

On Friday morning, Robinson said the records are kept by the deputy secretaries and some other senior staff who are “identified as points-of-contact for individual districts.” An unnamed contractor with one of the Regional Educational Cooperatives also keeps some of the records, Robinson said.

“As they are not all in one place, we have requested these be sent to our records custodian to furnish to you,” Robinson said. “In at least one case, the responsible person no longer works for PED. In others, the responsible person is out of office on business. We are in the process of collecting these as quickly as possible and issued the burdensome letter when it became clear that we needed more time to do so.”

Aside from those written assurances, the state also relies on an anonymous complaint hotline for information about students who might be in conditions that aren’t COVID safe in public schools.

As Source NM is reporting in its series on air quality in the state’s schools, the average student, parent or teacher may not even know about the importance of filtration as one method to stopping the spread of the airborne virus, and the filters are typically installed in central air systems away from classrooms, so it’s not clear how they would be able to report a violation in the first place.

“How could we go beyond what we’ve been required to do and make triple sure that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing?” Robinson said during an interview on Monday.

Since state education officials first required COVID-safe practices at the beginning of 2021, they have only sent letters to enforce them on two of the state’s 89 school districts, according to other PED records obtained by Source New Mexico.

In both cases, PED became aware of the violations not because the state was checking but because of either media coverage or a parent whistleblower.

PED suspended the Floyd Municipal School Board in July 2021 after the board voted to make masking “optional” while PED still had a school mask mandate. Robinson said PED became aware of the vote through the media.

PED threatened Hope Christian School in Albuquerque with a $5,000 fine in August 2021 after a parent notified state officials that the school also wasn’t requiring masks.