Citing the increasing prevalence of the COVID-19 Delta variant, New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has announced that all students, educators, staff and visitors will be required to wear face masks indoors for the start of the 2021-22 school year.
On Aug. 6, Murphy signed Executive Order 251, which will mandate masking in the indoor premises of all public, private and parochial preschool, elementary and secondary school buildings, with limited exceptions. The order is effective on Aug. 9.
Republican Jack Ciattarelli, who is running against Murphy in the 2021 gubernatorial race, issued a press release shortly after Murphy made his announcement and said, “Let me be clear, I oppose Gov. Murphy’s mask mandate for students. The science is clear: nearly all children who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and wearing masks for children is terrible for their social and emotional development.”
According to a press release from Murphy’s office, in recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for students to wear masks due to the increasing prevalence of the Delta variant, the ineligibility of those under 12 for vaccination and a rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases.
“We understand students learn best in a classroom setting and remain committed to having our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction this fall,” Murphy was quoted as saying in the press release.
“While this announcement gives us no pleasure, I know that by taking this precaution we can keep our schools open while also keeping our children safe.
“We will continue to closely monitor the science and data and will lift this mandate when we can do so safely. I urge those who are eligible for vaccination but have yet to be vaccinated to act and help move our state in the right direction,” he said.
While masks will be broadly required in school buildings for the upcoming school year, exceptions will remain unchanged from the 2020-21 school year, and include:
• When doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, such as when the individual is exposed to extreme heat indoors;
• When the individual has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance;
• When a student’s documented medical condition or disability, as reflected in an Individualized Education Program or Educational Plan pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, precludes use of a face covering;
• When the individual is under 2 years of age;
• When an individual is engaged in an activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask, such as eating and drinking or playing an instrument that would be obstructed by the face covering;
• When the individual is engaged in high-intensity aerobic or anerobic activity;
• When a student is participating in high-intensity physical activities during a physical education class in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from all other individuals; or
• When wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.
“Given the Delta variant’s high transmissibility and the fact that the COIVD-19 vaccine is not yet available for children under 12, we must use all the prevention strategies we have to protect children in classrooms this fall,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
“Children should wear masks, physically distance, wash their hands frequently, stay home when they are sick, get tested when they have symptoms and get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible,” she said.
“Here in New Jersey we have seen a concerning rise in viral spread,” said Dr. Jeanne Craft, president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “A hopeful spring has become a worrisome summer.
“The conditions have changed, the risk is higher, especially for children. We need to move forward with an abundance of caution. We have come so far, but we need to continue to rely on scientific evidence and expert advice to keep children, teachers, school staff and communities as safe as possible,” Craft said.
“We cannot waver in our commitment to protecting the health and safety of students and staff as the pandemic is surging,” said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, a union which represents Garden State teachers.
“Above all, we remain committed to providing our students with the best possible educational experience this year. They deserve it and we are determined to make sure they have it,” she said.
“This guidance is in line with the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, which represents the state’s school boards.
“Against the backdrop of the rapid spread of the Delta variant, masks will play an important role in making possible what should be our top priority: safely returning children and staff to the classroom,” Feinsod said.