New Mexico Officials Say Teachers Are Safe from Legal Liability Amid Virus

By Cedar Attanasio | September 10, 2020

New Mexico officials clarified this week that teachers won’t be on the hook for lawsuits that might stem from COVID-19 outbreaks as in-person classes began for some students.

“In no way will teachers or school employees be held personally liable for litigation arising out of COVID-19,” said Richard Valerio, executive director of New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority.

School districts can be on the hook for negligence that leads to students getting sick, however. The insurance agency sent a letter last week to districts urging them to follow safe COVID-19 practices to avoid getting sued.

Valerio says it’s “wait and see” as to how much legal risk schools will face.

No lawsuits have been filed in New Mexico, which has had some in-person learning for certain at-risk students.

Teachers are immune from personal liability for virtually all lawsuits, such as a personal injury claim from a student who contracts a virus at school. Lawsuits are defended and paid out through insurance administered by the agency.

The letter sent last week didn’t mention teacher liability, leading some educators to infer that they might be at risk.

“It’s important to clarify this fact after some unfortunate misinterpretation of NMPSIA’s (email) to superintendents,” Lt. Gov. Howie Morales said. “We will protect all of our educators and staff who are on the front lines of this pandemic today, and we are extremely grateful for their contributions to our students and our communities.”

New Mexico health officials have reported 26,181 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. More than 800 deaths in the state have been linked to the virus.

Plans for in-person schooling were pushed back after a spike in cases in July.

Case counts have been going down, and the state is hitting targets for testing levels and hospital bed space. Only 44 additional confirmed cases were reported Tuesday.

More than half of the 89 school districts in New Mexico have been approved to allow kindergarten through fifth-grade students to go to school in person two days per week.

Belen Consolidated Schools, just south of Albuquerque, is one of 20 public districts and charter schools to hold in-person classes Tuesday for elementary school children, according to the Public Education Department.

Middle school and high school are online-only for the foreseeable future.

Belen schools opened Tuesday after receiving a shipment of personal protective gear Friday, television station KOB reported. Students will have their temperatures taken daily to screen for fever, a symptom of COVID-19.

The state’s largest districts won’t be allowing in-person classes for at least the next few weeks, with some leaning toward staying online through January.

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

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