Noting the significant decline of statewide COVID-19 metrics, Gov. Phil Murphy has announced that masks and facial coverings will no longer be mandated for students, staff members or visitors in schools and childcare centers effective March 7.
“I must thank the overwhelming majority of students, parents, administrators, educators and support staffers who have worn their masks without problem or protest since our schools reopened for in-person learning,” Murphy was quoted as saying in a press release.
“Thankfully, we have reached a point where we feel confident we can take another step toward normalcy for our kids. Given the continued drop in new cases and hospitalizations, projections indicating a continued decline over the coming weeks, and the continued growth of vaccinations for our school-age population, we believe we can responsibly end the universal mask mandate,” he said.
School districts and childcare facilities can choose to continue to implement universal masking policies after the mandate is lifted in March, according to a Feb. 7 press release from the Governor’s office.
Schools that do not impose universal masking should revise their COVID policies to use masking among other prevention strategies under certain circumstances, according to the press release.
Schools will not be permitted to prohibit the use of facial coverings by individuals. Administrators will be expected to take disciplinary action in instances of bullying should those instances arise due to an individual’s choice to continue wearing a mask, according to the press release.
Prior to the mandate being lifted, the New Jersey Department of Health will release guidance to help school districts update their policies to align with the risks and unique needs of their setting and student population to ensure safe learning environments, according to the press release.
“The department will develop guidance that incorporates all aspects of safety in schools while children are unmasked,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said. “We know every parent wants to do what is best for their children.”
Following Murphy’s announcement, New Jersey Education Association President Sean M. Spiller, Vice President Steve Beatty and Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson released a statement in which they said, “We are encouraged by the data showing a rapid decline of COVID transmission in New Jersey. Because of that, we are cautiously optimistic the current statewide school mask mandate can be safely relaxed in the near future, assuming current trends continue.
“As we have said from the beginning of the pandemic, it is critical to follow the data and listen to public health experts when implementing or removing COVID protocols. As of today (Feb. 7), that data is trending strongly in the right direction and we look forward to additional public health guidance supporting the move away from mandatory masking in schools.
“We urge Gov. Murphy to continue to analyze the data and do whatever is necessary to best protect the health and well-being of students and staff. That includes the possibility of maintaining or reimposing the mask mandate for schools after March 7 if the data indicate that is the correct course.
“It is appropriate for Gov. Murphy to allow local districts to continue to require masking in communities where that is prudent based on local conditions. We also urge Gov. Murphy to direct the Department of Health to provide clear guidelines and metrics for local districts to use as they decide whether to continue mandatory masking based on local conditions.
“In addition, we continue to urge everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. It is clear that the more people in our school communities who are vaccinated, the safer everyone in those communities will be.
“That is also the best way to prevent a resurgence of COVID that could result in the need to reinstitute protocols, such as masking, that we are on the verge of being able to move beyond,” the NJEA officials said.