(Photo by Fran Baltzer for the New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey teachers and students getting ready for school this fall will have to add one more thing to their back-to-school lists: masks.
New Jersey will reinstate its mask mandate for all K-12 students, teachers, and staff, regardless of vaccination status, for the upcoming school year, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.
“I want as much as anybody else in our state to see our kids’ smiles as they start their school years, but I do not want to see, at the same time, any of them getting sick needlessly or schools have to shut down again and go remote because of an outbreak, and especially of a dangerous variant that is putting kids in its crosshairs” said Murphy, a first-term Democrat up for re-election in November.
The about-face on a school mask mandate comes as coronavirus cases surge across the Garden State, fueled by the Delta variant, which health officials say is more contagious than previous strains.
Murphy previously announced in June that the mask requirement in schools would be lifted for the fall, leaving it up to individual school districts to decide their mask policies. But he said at the time he would reinstate the mandate if there was “a dramatic change in our situation before the beginning of the school year.”
The Centers for Disease Control began recommended wearing masks again in areas with “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 cases, regardless of vaccination status. Murphy stopped short of issuing a statewide mask mandate, instead strongly urging residents to mask up indoors, whether they’re vaccinated or not.
Critics come out in full force
While celebrated by some — including the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a strong Murphy ally — the announcement is angering others who call it a hasty reaction to incomplete data.
“I just don’t understand this action — it seems gratuitously provocative at this point,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “If we see signs of Covid having substantial impact on younger people, we’ll have another conversation. But doing this now, I think it just damages our government’s credibility and faith in the vaccines.”
Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican nominee facing Murphy for governor, said he opposes the mask mandate for students and called for parents to make the decision.
“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,” he said.
The governor is already facing a lawsuit, filed July 9 in U.S. District Court in Newark, which seeks to stop state officials and local districts from mandating masks in schools. Nearly two dozen students and parents have signed on as plaintiffs.
Murphy said during his press conference that “anyone telling you we can safely reopen schools is lying to you.”
NJEA President Marie Blistan commended the governor for taking the step.
Murphy remains firm on New Jersey schools resuming full-day in-person instruction in the fall, with no virtual options.
If we see signs of Covid having substantial impact on younger people, we'll have another conversation. But doing this now, I think it just damages our government's credibility and faith in the vaccines.
– State Sen. Declan O'Scanlon
O’Scanlon stressed that officials on both sides of the aisle need to keep an open mind as data evolves, especially with the delta variant.
“We need to pay attention and be ready to respond if there is an increase in cases, although I’m not sure masks in schools will ever be necessary when there’s already a dramatically small level of transmission,” he said, citing a Norwegian Institute of Public Health study that did not find substantial transmission in schools.
He also pointed out all teachers and staff — and students ages 12 and up — are eligible for the vaccine. Those who choose not to get it are willingly putting themselves at risk, he added.
“It’s not the government’s place to protect us from our own decisions, whether the government agrees with those decisions or not. Teachers that have chosen to be unvaccinated, they know the risk they have,” O’Scanlon said.
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