RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) — The head of a national teachers union visited New Mexico on Thursday as part of a nationwide campaign to convince parents that it’s safe to send their kids back to public school. The effort comes as more parents voice concerns over mask mandates, saying they aren’t being given a choice as school boards adopt state and federal guidance on the matter.
The Albuquerque school board ended its meeting early Wednesday amid parents protesting and members of a rural school board in eastern New Mexico were suspended by state officials for deciding that masks would be optional this school year.
American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten said she believes masks are among the precautions that school districts can take to ensure students can safely return to in-person learning.
In her talks with parents around the country, she said they want to know details of plans by officials to keep their kids safe, plans for masks and whether school ventilation systems have been improved.
“We’re on a full court press this month to build trust among parents and educators that schools are safe and to get shots in the arms of people who have been resistant,” Weingarten said in an an interview.
Weingarten was criticized in recent weeks after some said she wavered on school reopenings following the reversal of federal officials on mask-wearing rules for vaccinated people.
But Weingarten stressed that her union’s goal is to get students back into the classroom and do it safely.
“We are reopening our schools full-time because we know our kids need it but we also know they need to be safe,” she said.
Weingarten’s meeting Thursday with school officials in Rio Rancho followed visits to Albany, New York, on Monday, where she knocked on parents’ doors and a trip to Florida over the weekend, where concerns are high due to a surge of COVID-19 cases.
“I think the last three weeks of the delta surge has given people pause again — not a pause about reopening schools, but that the safety issues are front and center again,” she said.
Weingarten will travel to seven more states this week as part of the union’s campaign to support vaccination clinics and encourage parents through billboards, advertisements, town halls and door-to-door visits that schools are safe. The work is funded by $5 million in grants.
She said the Rio Rancho district has been building on efforts that were started earlier this year to ensure student and staff safety. The school board voted 3-2 this week to allow vaccinated secondary students the option of not wearing masks after they show proof of immunization.
New Mexico’s largest district — Albuquerque Public Schools — is requiring all students, employees and visitors to wear masks while inside, whether they are vaccinated or not. Santa Fe schools are requiring masks inside school buildings and on buses.
New Mexico health officials say nearly 40% of children ages 12 through 17 in the state have been fully vaccinated. While the state’s overall vaccination rate is about 65%, officials said they are pleased that the rate is increasing among younger people.
New Mexico on Thursday reported another 671 confirmed infections — the highest daily total since March. However, state data shows that the percentage of new cases each week for those under 18 have been much lower than other age groups.