Governor Murphy to lift school mask mandates next month

Photo courtesy of Phil Murphy, Flickr.

New Jersey school districts and daycare centers will no longer be required to wear masks beginning March 7, administration officials said. Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision counters one of the state’s constant pandemic restrictions, signaling a shift in attitude toward COVID-19.

“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” Murphy said Monday during a Covid briefing, citing a declining rate of Covid hospitalizations and transmission within the state.

Masks will not be banned within these settings and will be worn at the discretion of local districts accordingly, Murphy explained. Generally, however, educators, students, staff and visitors can be maskless indoors.

This announcement comes nearly a month after Murphy had declared a public health emergency against the Omicron variant, which has since been easing into the state. Despite this, vaccination levels are low amongst young New Jersey students.

Covid cases had been at a record-breaking high throughout the holiday season with 1.35 million reported across the nation on Jan. 11. New Jersey set a new statewide high each day between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3, nearly doubling cases from 15,000 a day to just over 27,000. 

Murphy had quickly responded to the surge by ensuring that mask and vaccine measures remain in place under a reinstatement of a public health emergency. Since, the state’s fight against the recent Omicron surge has significantly improved. On Feb. 8, New Jersey reported 1,425 cases, plummeting from recent trends.

Weekly Covid tests indicate a conspicuous decrease in cases, dropping 79% amongst students and 86% between teachers and staff since the beginning of January. 

“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from Omicron and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” Murphy said.

He indicated that a growing number of vaccination rates gave justification for lifting the mandate, but vaccinating children has been a long-standing point of contention within the state.

Children between the ages of 5 and 17 are the least protected against Covid with vaccination levels as low as 2.5% amongst 16- and 17-year-olds, according to data from the Department of Health. As of Feb. 1, approximately one in four 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated.

“There is guidance that [the Department of Health] will be formulating over the next number of weeks,” Murphy said in response to these figures. “That'll be quarantining. It'll be things like barriers, social distancing, all the stuff we know are in place.”

Democratic governors of Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware have made the same decision within their state’s schools too, seeing Covid as inevitable to daily routine. As this trend seems to uncover itself across the nation, doctors and pediatricians have spoken on the matter in a divisive flurry of opinion essays and interviews.

“It’s hard to speak out because there’s been this sort of protect-against-Covid-at-all-costs attitude, which made sense in 2020, when we had no vaccines,” said Dr. Lucy McBride, who, like other doctors, is advocating against school mask mandates. “It just doesn’t add up anymore.”

Similar to parents who have rallied and protested in a call to unmask children, some doctors are citing students’ declining mental health and overall lacking academic performance levels as reasons to lift the mandate.

However, others, such as Dr. Jeanne Craft, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, challenge Murphy’s decision. She pointed to low inoculation levels of children between ages 5 and 11 who are likely to transmit the virus to other vulnerable groups, especially at home.

“Saying that children are less likely to die of Covid, less likely to get severely sick from Covid, doesn’t mean that they can’t and that they don’t,” Craft said.

The state Health Department will be working closely with school districts in mitigating outbreaks once the mandate is lifted, Murphy explained.

"This is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids,” he said.