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Howell school board addresses mask issue in letter to Governor

HOWELL – The Howell K-8 School District Board of Education has sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy regarding what it calls the lack of consistency regarding the use of masks in schools and not in every other setting.

The board’s June 1 letter was copied to state assemblymen Sean Kean and Edward Thomson, and to state Sen. Robert Singer. The three Republicans represent Howell in the state Legislature.

In their letter to Murphy, the Howell administrators wrote, “As Governor, you implemented several executive orders and other measures in an effort to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As elected officials and district leaders, we implemented those mandates without question. Being a state agency, we are required to do so.

“In Howell, we moved through several iterations of the school day and have been providing in-person instruction five days a week for over four hours a day. In compliance with your directive, our planning for the (2021-22) school year has already begun in preparation for a return to a full-day, in-person experience for all students.

“Fortunately, the data relative to COVID-19 has significantly improved. As such, additional executive orders have recently been issued which relax restrictive mandates. However, the lack of clarity and consistency in those mandates has resulted in much confusion and frustration among the school community.

“For example, students and staff must continue to be masked during the school day both indoors and outdoors, yet they can be unmasked in all other settings. Guidance pertaining to graduation ceremonies included the provision for students to be unmasked and not physically distanced.

“Students are permitted to go out to dinner with their families and remain mask-less from the time they enter the restaurant until the time they leave. Schools now remain the only place in which students and staff are still required to be masked,” district administrators wrote.

“While it is not our role to opine on whether or not students should be masked in our schools, it is our role to question the inconsistency in expectations across settings and ask why schools have been excluded from the relaxed mandates.

“We are aware most school-aged children are not eligible for vaccination, but if that were the rationale, then the mask mandate would apply to all settings and not only schools. This discrepancy has resulted in conflict among community members and between parents and school districts.

“We respectfully request that you revisit the recent executive orders relaxing the prior mandates and the manner in which they are applied to schools. … We ask that you reserve judgment on mask requirements for the Fall.

“While we recognize the complexity in these decisions, many parents of school-aged children are seeking parental choice on the issue of mask wearing within the school setting.

“The last 15 months have had a devastating toll on our state and local communities, and the current guidance is creating increased levels of anxiety and stress among neighbors.

“It is with the greatest level of respect that we submit this request in an effort to continue to move our district forward, while maintaining a priority on the safety and well-being of all members of our school community,” the district administrators wrote.

Board members voted 8-1 to send the letter to Murphy when they met on May 25.

Board member Denise Lowe, a former superintendent of schools in Asbury Park, voted “no.” Asked for comment by the Tri-Town News, she said, “The board as a whole, school boards, are nonpartisan.

“Unfortunately, and I am not taking any sides, this mask issue has become very political, and we take our guidance from (a) national school boards (association) and they have not come out on a position that I am aware of in regard to (masks),” Lowe said.

She said she did not believe it was the board’s place to act, saying, “It split the community, those are the reasons. My reason for not voting is that we are a nonpartisan board.”

According to an article that was published on a New Jersey news website on June 2, Murphy expressed his open-mindedness in regard to dropping mask requirements when schools open for the 2021-22 school year.

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