The Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education voted 3-2 at its special meeting Monday to allow vaccinated secondary students the option of not wearing a mask in school, once they have shown valid proof of COVID-19 immunization.
Those students will have mask passes, which they can show their teachers or administrators, to go mask-free. Unvaccinated secondary students must wear masks.
The board didn’t have a choice in what happens in the elementary schools; the state Public Education Department mandated that elementary students and teachers must all be masked.
In light of the recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisement that people indoors in high-risk areas should be masked, regardless of vaccinations, the state PED did not mandate masking in secondary schools. The school board —approving the unmasked provision for secondary schools a week earlier — voted to continue to allow vaccinated students to go mask-free.
Earlier in their two-hour meeting, Superintendent Sue Cleveland said teachers would have seating charts “to quickly identify” students vaccinated and unvaccinated, so they wouldn’t have to ask every student to show mask passes on a daily basis.
Unvaccinated teachers will be masked also.
The PED and school district, pending an updated toolkit from the PED, are “operating under the toolkit that we shared with you (July 26),” Cleveland said, thus the ability to not mandate masks in the secondary buildings, as has been done earlier by Albuquerque Public Schools, among other school districts.
“Quarantining is still here,” but not whole classrooms and buildings, Cleveland said, when there are positive cases in the schools. “Staff has a responsibility to enforce the system.”
Board president Amanda Galbraith summarized the 25 public comments board members had received and nearly all of them dealt with masks: All should wear masks; none should wear masks; vaccinated students shouldn’t need to wear masks.
“So like with everything else, those communities are divided. People are divided across the state as to what’s the best thing to do,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland remained confident that after a thorough cleaning of the buildings and with the most-powerful filters installed, “We have done everything that we know to do to make our schools as safe as possible.”
Plus, she added, Sandoval County is not considered a “hot spot” for COVID, and 70 percent of its residents are fully vaccinated, “also a positive.”
“I’m 100 percent certain … there’s no way we can make everyone happy in this,” Beth Pendergrass, chief communications, strategy and engagement officer, told the board.
Not all board members were happy: Jeffrey Morgan and Catherine Cullen were against requiring everyone to wear masks and instituting disciplinary measures for unvaccinated students refusing to wear masks. Noreen Scott and Wynne Coleman voted yes.
Galbraith then broke the tie, after earlier noting it’s hard to teach while wearing a mask.
“I really hope that masks are not going to dominate the conversation this year,” Cleveland said. “Our children deserve to come back and have a wonderful school year … we’re very excited to have our students back.”
There is still a virtual-only option for parents wary about sending their students to school for in-person learning. Cleveland said 198 students had signed up as of Aug. 1 for elementary virtual learning, with more anticipated.
Cleveland reminded the board, “… everything could change again when the new CDC guidelines come out” and if case counts rise, “We want to stay open if at all possible.”
2 schools won’t open yet
Two schools still undergoing HVAC work won’t be open on time, Cleveland said: Colinas del Norte Elementary and Mountain View Middle School. Cleveland said those students will have remote learning until the schools are ready, expected to be Aug. 23.
Melanie Archibeque, executive director of facilities, said the district had been prepared to get the work done in time for school to open, but the pandemic led to “shortages and delays receiving materials.”
Eight of 28 HVAC units had been received at CdN, and temporary cooling units have been purchased for about $36,000 and are being installed pending the receipt of the remaining HVAC units.
At MVMS, where more work is required, “We don’t have any HVAC units that have arrived,” Archibeque said.
She read a letter from a vendor saying there were nationwide shortages during this recent “global surge in construction activity.”
Roofing materials have also been delayed, she noted.
In other board matters:
• Cleveland reminded the board that Ryan Stewart is stepping down as the cabinet secretary of the state PED, replaced by Kurt Steinhaus, the recently retired superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools.
“We’ve known Kurt a long time,” Cleveland said. “He’s very familiar with our government, with the public ed department and with our school district… He is a very good man and really wants to do good things for our students.”
• A task force’s creation for input and assistance in capital projects was discussed.
“Right now, we have some current needs,” Galbraith said, noting Cleveland and Rio Rancho high schools are “above capacity,” among other needs.
The task force, she explained, would reflect three areas of need: career/technical education; early childhood; and special schools and programs at Independence High School, Desert Pathways and Cyber Academy.
Galbraith said she preferred two board members and Cleveland to be on the task force and asked that she and Scott represent the board on it. Cleveland said the short-term goal should be finding money, above picking necessary projects.
Coleman said she preferred that students be a part of the committee, “so they can make sure they’re heard.”
Finding “some creative needs for funding” is a necessity for such a committee, Scott added, with Archibeque and board attorney Loren Hatch included.
The board’s next regular meeting is Aug. 9 at 5:30 p.m., and will be live-streamed on rrps.net.