OLD BRIDGE – The use of a face mask during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will become optional for students, staff members and visitors in the Old Bridge Township Public School District on March 7.
The Board of Education voted in favor of eliminating the school masking policy at a meeting on Feb. 15.
In February, Gov. Phil Murphy, noting the significant decline of statewide COVID-19 metrics, announced that masks and facial coverings will no longer be mandated for students, staff members or visitors in New Jersey’s schools and childcare centers effective March 7.
“The Old Bridge Township Public School District has dutifully followed the requirements prescribed to school districts protecting the health of our learning communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Schools Superintendent David Cittadino said in a statement. “And we continue to do what needs to be done to keep our schools running and every student and staff member safe.
“With that said, we look at the upcoming removal of the mask mandate as a sign of a most welcome ebb of COVID-19 and as, perhaps, the greatest step towards normalcy in our schools to date. We are looking forward to truly seeing each other, and our emotions, for the first time in a very long time.”
Cittadino relayed the board’s decision to eliminate the mask mandate policy in a letter to the Old Bridge Township Public Schools community on Feb. 16.
At the board meeting, board member Jill DeCaro shared concerns she received from parents, who still want their kids to continue wearing a mask.
“Is there anything we can do to ease those parents’ fears, concerns for those who really want their children to continue to wear a mask because once they get to school, they don’t really know,” she said.
Cittadino said without a mask mandate, it comes down to personal choice of the student and their family.
“It will be protected as their personal choice just like many other articles of clothing and fashion are personal choice and protected,” he said. “If someone intimidates or harasses someone about something of personal choice that they are wearing, they will face the code of conduct consequences and if it’s a staff member, they will have those same consequences or visitors … they will face the consequence of being considered a trespasser and not be allowed in our schools for future items and dates.”
Board member Leonardo Marchetta asked if the code of conduct consequences applies for “intimidation, harassment and bullying” of students not vaccinated after hearing some concerns from parents.
Board attorney Christopher Parton replied “yes.”
“One of good things the legislature made in the harassment, intimidation and bullying law, it talks about distinguishing factors of a child, that could mean anything and certainly could mean vaccination status,” he said. “If a child on either side of this law that we have is being harassed by other students for being vaccinated, or not being vaccinated, it would be a distinguishing characteristic.”
Any complaints for harassment, intimidation and bullying can be filed online.
Cittadino encouraged board members to bring any concerns of harassment, intimidation and bullying to his attention immediately so he can deal with the issues.
He said the district could hold educational platforms and work with counselors to educate students about choices and rights regarding the vaccinations.
“I don’t want children to be scrutinized because of a choice made by their parents,” he said.
Ahead of March 7, board member Jill Cali said it’s a good idea for parents to speak to their children.
“If your child is wearing a mask, that’s your child’s business, if your child is not wearing a mask, that’s your child’s business and nobody’s right to bully anyone for whatever decision that they make,” she said. “It goes both ways whether anti-masker or for masks, you need to speak to your children.”
In announcing the lifting of the mask mandate, Murphy said school district administrators and the operators of childcare facilities can choose to continue to implement universal masking policies after the mandate is lifted on March 7.
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, 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.
In addition, Cittadino said they are also waiting for information regarding masking on school buses in the letter to the school community. The federal government’s mandate for public transportation, including school buses, has not yet been lifted.