New Mexico’s mask mandate for schools sparks legal battle

ALBUQUERQUE – A legal battle is brewing in New Mexico over the power of state education officials over local school boards and the limits of that authority.

The fight stems from the Public Education Department’s suspension this week of a rural school board that voted to make masks optional for students when they return to class. The agency also filed a complaint with the state’s district court asking for the final removal of the board of directors.

Robert Aragon, one of the lawyers representing the Floyd School Board, said the education department was overstepping its authority and the case highlighted one of the foundations of education governance – which officials locals know the needs of the local community best.

Related:Small-town New Mexico school board suspended after repeatedly contradicting COVID-19 guidelines

The legal battle stems from the Public Education Department's suspension this week of a rural school board that voted to make masks optional for students when they return to class.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Aragon said. “This is a question that goes to the heart of governance.… Schools have been governed locally by locally elected people, and now we have a secretary of state and a governor trying to centralize uniform policies contrary to the State law. “

He pointed to an earlier court ruling that the Secretary of State for Education had some authority, but it is not without limits and that state laws provide for those limits by granting school boards the power. self-governance.

In its court record, the state argued that all schools in New Mexico are required to follow guidelines issued by the Department of Public Education regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines require that all unvaccinated people wear a mask in a school building, during school-sponsored activities and on buses. There are also testing requirements, and social distancing is required for unvaccinated students and staff.

On July 30, the New Mexico Department of Health issued an updated public health order confirming the Department of Education’s authority to issue guidelines for public schools. The ordinance also authorized the ministry to enforce the guidelines on private schools.

The department warned in its “irreparable injury” complaint if the court does not permanently remove the board, saying the school year begins next week and there could be an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

Following:NMSU Expands COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Requirements to Include Students

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While infections have increased nationwide, state data shows that the rise among school-aged children in New Mexico has been lower than that of other age groups. On Monday, the state reported that about 16% of infections in the past seven days were pediatric cases with no hospitalizations reported for this group.

More and more parents have raised concerns about terms of office, saying they had no choice as school boards adopted state and federal guidelines.

Republican lawmakers have also criticized the state’s approach.

The dismissed school board members were due to file their own lawsuit in state district court on Friday, asking the court to dismiss the state’s request for their permanent dismissal.

There are concerns about how the public education department developed the COVID-19 guidelines, Aragon said, noting that rules are generally proposed, that the public has an opportunity to comment and that the agency takes comments into account before adopting a final version. That did not happen in this case, he said.

“There is a law that allows school boards to act independently, to be a separate governing body, to create policies for their local districts,” he said. “This fight is important to every family in the state of New Mexico.”

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