Editor’s note: This story was reported as the result of an Inspection of Public Records Act request to the New Mexico Public Education Department. Public records are an essential aspect of investigation for the public good, but require many hours to review. Please consider supporting your local journalists by subscribing to the Carlsbad Current-Argus.
The New Mexico Public Education Department received 15 COVID-19 regulation complaints regarding Carlsbad Municipal School District within the first six weeks of the school year, which ranged from allegations of teachers and staff not enforcing mask requirements to the spread of false information about the coronavirus vaccine.
Records provided by the New Mexico Public Education Department revealed most complaints were submitted between Aug. 31 and Sept. 3, prompting the department to send a seven-part response letter notifying Carlsbad Municipal Schools (CMS) of the complaints.
PED regulations require the department to contact the school district if a school receives more than three complaints within a seven-day period. In more serious cases the department could send an investigator to the school.
“This email is to inform you that a PED assigned investigator will be reviewing the matter,” the PED letter to CMS stated.
Names and identifying information of complainants were redacted by the PED for privacy and safety. Complaints were submitted to the department through the COVID-19 Safety Concern portal.
In late September Carlsbad Municipal Schools Superintendent, Dr. Gerry Washburn acknowledged the complaints about school facilities failing to follow state health regulations. The District addressed the complaints, Washburn told members of the Carlsbad School Board on Sept. 21, and made efforts to ensure students followed regulations. A response letter to the Public Education Department outlined those responses.
Thirteen of the complaints submitted during that period were related to Carlsbad High School. Of the total complaints, one was noted as a duplicate of a previous complaint. One complaint was recorded for PR Leyva Carlsbad Intermediate School and one for Alta Vista Middle School.
The first complaint filed for Carlsbad High School (CHS) on Aug. 11 — the first day of school for most students — stated that a parent was concerned about students crowding together and exposing her daughter to the coronavirus.
A complaint submitted on Aug. 31 alleged that a staff member at CHS was spreading false information about the COVID-19 vaccine and was telling people “how to fake letters to get out of vaccines” on Facebook. The teacher’s name was redacted in the PED documents. The response letter to the PED from Washburn said the district interviewed the employee and found compliance with the regulations while at work.
“She is exercising her free speech rights,” the response stated. “We cautioned her on the need to make sure that she is not representing a District position when posting on social media.”
A complaint submitted Sept. 2 stated a teacher did not require students to wear masks in class and another submitted Sept. 3 stated that extra masks were not available for students who might be in need of one.
“Offices have been observed to not have appropriate (personal protective equipment) for students who have forgotten their masks or have misplaced their protection. The offices are turning students away without offering a mask for safety in the school setting,” the complaint stated.
Another complaint submitted Sept. 3 stated many students were not wearing masks properly and school administration was not providing staff with proper guidance on how to manage it.
In the response letter, Washburn stated that Carlsbad School District made it clear that students and staff were required to adhere to mask requirements and that principals notified staff on how to handle violations.
“Our union leadership is in support of us initiating disciplinary action in the event a teacher refuses to wear a mask. We suspended a student this week for their fourth violation of dress code for refusing to wear a mask,” Washburn stated.
The letter also stated that PPE was made available in all school facilities, and that the District would send a memo explaining how offices could request more.
A complaint dated Sept. 1 stated, “there have been no efforts expressed to community or staff of the deep cleaning procedures to protect entire school population.” In response Washburn’s letter stated that the district fogs all rooms on a nightly basis and applies an anti-bacterial coating called Germinator to all surfaces, including playground equipment, every 90 days.
“There may be some confusion as we indicated that we would do additional deep cleaning upon written notification of four rapid responses and some may want assurance that this is occurring,” Washburn’s letter stated. “We will send a communication out letting people know what we are doing on a near continual basis.”
On Aug. 13 the PED received two complaints about CHS returning to remote learning temporarily, as COVID-19 cases began to rise. A letter from the district sent to parents about the shutdown stated it was done proactively to avoid canceling sports activities and special education services.
“My concern is that this decision was not made with safety for the whole community, it was selfishly made to satisfy the small number of parents who are not supportive of COVID protocols and are more interested in traditions that do not consider community safety,” one of the complaints stated.
On Sept. 2 PED received a complaint which expressed concern over staff absences at CHS.
“To accommodate for the staffing shortage students have been placed in the ‘Little Theater’ and library in larger groups,” the complaint stated. “Some of the Substitutes have not been trained on appropriate social distancing protocols … “
Washburn’s response stated the district was awaiting the arrival of five new teachers at the time of the complaint, while five unvaccinated staff members were quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19.
“On occasion, we have placed students in the Little Theater. It has a capacity of over 200 and provides ample room for students to spread out and practice appropriate social distancing. We will make sure that the person assigned to that room has students appropriately spaced during the period that they are in there,” the letter stated.
Washburn told the Current-Argus there have been no investigators sent to Carlsbad to date. No disciplinary measures were taken against the District related to the complaints.
To read the full complaint records submitted to the PED, visit www.currentargus.com.
Claudia Silva is a reporter from the UNM Local Reporting Fellowship. She can be reached at [email protected], by phone at 575-628-5506 or on Twitter @thewatchpup.