School mask mandate ends in N.J. as debate over masking continues

By: and - March 7, 2022 11:39 am

Students arrive at Raritan High School in Hazlet on Monday, March 7, 2022, the first day masks are optional in New Jersey schools since the pandemic began. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Monday morning marked the first time in two years Heather Schwarz walked into a Hazlet school building without her mask on.

Schwarz, curriculum director for the 2,800-student district, told the New Jersey Monitor she thinks — after nearly two years of forced masking — everyone is ready to decide on their own whether to mask their children.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “We’re definitely going to have students and staff go without masks, and those that will continue to wear them, and we’ll support everyone’s decision.”

There was a lot of excitement and some apprehension Monday as children, teachers, and staff could go without face coverings for the first time since all schools reopened for in-person learning in the fall. Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement last month, saying the state is moving toward a “new normal.”

Most of New Jersey’s 676 school districts have decided to make masks optional. Some districts like Newark and Paterson are keeping the mask requirement, despite the mandate’s end and new federal guidance that says masks may not be necessary in most areas.

Rutgers-Eagleton poll out Monday says 46% of New Jerseyans strongly agree with ending the school mask mandate and 30% disagree.

This debate has raged since the pandemic began. Parents across the country have argued masks interfere with children’s learning and socialization, hurt children with special needs, and place an unnecessary burden on kids’ shoulders.

“We took the population that is least vulnerable to get and die from this disease, and we charged them with being responsible for saving the world,” said Davena Moore, the mother of two girls who attend Robbinsville High School. “But it’s not their responsibility. It’s not their fault if grandma gets sick and happens not to make it.”

Moore has attended school board meetings and rallies to call on public officials to respect masking as a “personal choice.” She was happy to see the mask mandate lifted, even though she feels it is long overdue.

“We can finally breathe air that we knew was not toxic in the first place,” Moore said.

Most students went unmasked in social studies teacher Stacy Schiller’s Raritan High School classroom. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Nikki Stouffer of Medford was so angry about the mandate she started a group called the Child Advocate Coalition and a website called UnmaskNJSchools to mobilize against it. The website maintains a list of school districts’ masking policies, and it shows about a dozen districts across the state will continue mandating masks.

Concerned about masks and remote classes, Stouffer pulled her son, 13, out of school to teach him at home. Her daughter stayed at her Catholic high school because she’s a graduating senior, Stouffer said.

As a medical biostatistician, Stouffer believes masks don’t prevent COVID-19 and contribute to growing mental health challenges for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing a mask lowers your odds of testing positive.

“There’s been no reason to mask kids from day one,” Stouffer said. “We’re in a youth mental health pandemic now because of the masks and virtual schooling.”

Stouffer plans to continue home-schooling her son next year, because she believes mask mandates might return. As her daughter weighs where she wants to go to college, institutions’ masking policies are a factor they consider, Stouffer added.

Other parents, like Neha Mahajan, say it’s blind optimism to drop the mask mandate while the pandemic continues.

“If that’s how they feel, then fine, you can’t dictate what people are going to do anymore. But we need to be cognizant of the fact that the pandemic isn’t over — it’s just the degree to which it’s decreased,” she said.

For months, Mahajan has been going into her office at a law firm and still wears a mask, socially distances during meetings, and is mindful of COVID precautions that began nearly two years ago.

Her daughters, ages 10 and 15, will be doing the same at their schools in the Scotch Plainfield-Fanwood district, she said. They might be in the minority, but the two girls decided on their own that they weren’t comfortable taking their masks off yet, she said.

“We don’t know if there’s another variant coming or if another wave will show up suddenly, and then we go back to following the same steps we’ve been taking for the past two years anyway,” she said. “I think they made a very smart decision.”

She pointed out allergy symptoms can mimic COVID. It shouldn’t be a teacher’s responsibility to figure out why kids are sneezing or coughing, she said.

“It definitely scares me a little. At least with masks we contain some of those germs,” she said. “I know we’d all love to go back to normalcy and the world we had but we can’t just go back.”

Schwarz said teachers will do their best to monitor students, but the priority is for them to educate students, she said. If they see more than a simple sneeze or another health issue, the nurse or principal will get involved.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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