New Mexico’s largest private school, Hope Christian School in Albuquerque, has been fined $5,000 for not enforcing the state’s sweeping mask mandate. Last Thursday, the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) announced that the school had agreed to pay the fine.
The New Mexico Department of Health issued the mask order July 26, and private schools are required to follow all Covid-19 protocols in the state. Hope Christian has multiple campuses from elementary to high school, with an enrollment of around 1,400 students.
On August 12, an anonymous source obtained five photos showing “unmasked individuals of all ages” at the school. The source then referred those photos to the Department of Education along with an anonymous “Covid-19 Safety Concern” incident report through a state website.
The Orwellian reporting system, aptly located at nmgov.force.com/pedincidentreport/s/, encourages “concerned citizens” to police their neighbors regarding Covid safety violations. In addition, the form has an optional space where users can “include the names and roles of any school staff present for or involved in the reported incident.” The laundry list of Covid-19 concerns listed in the dropdown menu of the form includes:
- ‘Not meeting the social distancing requirements’
- ‘Not requiring face coverings’
- ‘Denying students, who are in a remote-only program, access to extracurricular activities that are available to other students at their price’
Katie Avery, NMPED’s director of strategic outreach, said, “Of course, since the Public Education Department does not have jurisdiction over private schools, we refer any complaints or questions that come in about those matters to our partners at the Department of Health.” Avery went on to say, “We really wanted to ensure that there was a system in place for staff members or family members to report any non-compliance with COVID-safe practices…This was established really early on, really at the outset of the pandemic, when we first initiated that list of protocols that we expected schools to adhere to in order to maintain in-person learning.”
The Department of Public Safety notified the school of the violation in September. The Department of Education reported that the school dropped a request for an evidentiary hearing last week regarding the matter. According to the school’s lawyer, Matthew Spangler, the school did not believe the issue merited a violation but that the school “has made an economic decision to cease its dispute and conclude this matter.”
The New Mexico Department of Education reported that Hope Christian was the first school to receive a fine for non-compliance. Comments on the matter from the public indicate just how deep the divide has become over masking children. While one side called out for bigger fines and charges of criminal negligence for school officials, droves of parents commended the school for prioritizing parental choice.
One family said of the school, “HOPE is the real deal. When they say it’s a family, it’s true. Teachers are genuinely invested in their students’ lives – from academics to spiritual to extracurricular. And how they handled COVID was heads above other schools in [Albuquerque]. They managed to stay open for in-person learning and keep the students and staff safe the entire 2020-21 school year. A+ for this year!!!!”
While an overwhelming majority of states elected not to enforce sweeping mask mandates for schools, some even calling for bans of the orders, New Mexico has been particularly aggressive regarding the matter. The state appears to be embracing the test-to-stay strategy but will continue masking requirements regardless of vaccination status.