Beginning next month, students and staff in New Jersey’s schools and daycare centers will no longer be required to wear masks, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.
Citing a ”dramatic decline” in COVID-19 cases numbers as the recent omicron surge wanes, Murphy said the universal mask requirement for schools will expire at the end of March.
“This is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids,” Murphy said. “We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to the endemic phase of this virus.”
The announcement, made at Murphy’s weekly briefing in Trenton, drew swift reaction from schools and parents on what has become a hotly debated issue since the pandemic began. Several districts said they planned to keep the mask mandate, while some parents were celebrating the possibility to drop them. Others worried the free-for-all would make the climate increasingly divisive, as it has in Pennsylvania, where individual school board members have been threatened and lawsuits have been filed to keep masks in place after the state Supreme Court struck down its mandate in December.
In Lawnside, Superintendent Ronn Johnson said the mask requirement would likely remain in his K-8 district until the end of the school year. He believes parents will want their children to wear masks beyond March.
“Just because you’re politically saying it’s done, doesn’t mean it’s done,” Johnson said. “Everyone is tired of wearing masks, but you have to do it in a manner that makes you comfortable.”
Evesham School Superintendent Justin Smith agreed masks would still be welcomed and encouraged, but noted enforcing masking at this point would be difficult for any district.
Some parents were eager to transition to mask-optional classrooms.
”I’m over the entire thing,” said Lori Hall, the mother of three boys in Gloucester Township. “Why not end it today? It breaks my heart that I have put my kids in a mask for six hours in school.”
Added Yonton Yares, a father of six in Cherry Hill: “It’s time. We can’t live in fear. We have to start rolling it back.”
The case rate among students and staff in New Jersey schools has dramatically dropped in the last month, going from 29 cases per 1,000 students at the start of January — and the height of the omicron surge — to 6 per 1,000 by Jan. 30, Murphy said. He anticipated the spread of the virus to be even lower by March 7 to allow the mandate to be safely lifted. He plans to extend New Jersey’s public health declaration for 30 days to allow the mask mandate to continue into March.
Delaware will also lift its statewide mask mandate for K-12 students and school employees, but it will remain in place until March 31 to give parents more time to get their children vaccinated and the state a chance to update its quarantine and contact-tracing guidance, said Gov. John Carney.
“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.
In a statement, the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it was “cautiously optimistic“ that the mask mandate could be safely removed. It urged Murphy to consider reimposing the mask requirement if there is an upward shift of cases.
There are 14 states, including New York and Connecticut, that require masks for K-12 students, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. New Jersey has required students to wear masks since September 2020.
”I can’t wait to throw the masks out and burn them,” said Eric Fieldman, a history teacher at Collingswood High School, but he also wasn’t ”entirely comfortable” teaching hundreds of students who may not be vaccinated.
He worries too that the issue will become more divisive for students and teachers. He is undecided on whether he will continue to wear a mask after the mandate is lifted.
”If I’m the only one in the room wearing it … is it just for show for my peace of mind?” Fieldman said.
Collingswood Superintendent Fred McDowell said the district’s 23-member public health advisory board would meet in the coming weeks to decide next steps. It is unlikely the mask mandate would be lifted until the transmission rate is much lower, he said.
Wearing masks has been challenging for students and teachers, said Clayton School Superintendent Nick Koutsogiannis said, and he believes learning would improve without them.
”We did a good job working around the masks,” Koutsogiannis said, “but there is only so much you can do.”
Camden school nurse Robin Cogan was pleased to hear her district would keep the mask mandate, at least while the city remains in the orange zone. Superintendent Katrina McCombs did not provide a specific date to transition away from masks.
“Removing the mandate is taking away needed guardrails for this journey that none of us have traveled,” Cogan said. “I think it feels premature. I have great hesitation.”
Adrienne Choma, a middle school teacher in Washington Township and a mother of two in Deptford, said she was “elated at the long overdue news that the mask mandate will be lifted.”
“The burden to keep everyone safe should not fall on the children,” she said. “My children and I will be maskless the first day we are able to be maskless and I am looking forward to seeing my students’ smiles beaming back at me.”