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August 06, 2021

N.J. to reverse course, reimplement COVID-19 mask mandate in schools this fall

The policy change comes as coronavirus infections and transmission rates in the state continue to spike

Prevention COVID-19
New Jersey schools masks Gustavo Martinez Contreras/Asbury Park Press

New Jersey will require students and teachers to wear face masks this upcoming school year. The file photo above shows students at Lakewood Middle School in class wearing masks and with protective barriers on their desks.

When New Jersey students, teachers and staff return to school for in-person learning this fall, face masks will have to come back with them.

New Jersey will reinstate its statewide COVID-19 mask mandate in schools for all K-12 students, teachers, staff and visitors – regardless of their vaccination status – for the start of the upcoming school year. 

Students with documented medical conditions and disabilities that make wearing a mask difficult or dangerous will be exempt from the rule. The requirement will also not apply to activities such as gym classes, playing musical instruments and eating or drinking in a classroom or cafeteria.

Gov. Phil Murphy cited the continued spread of the highly-contagious delta variant across New Jersey and the lack of available COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 11 and under for the policy change.

"This is not an announcement that gives us or me personally any pleasure," Murphy said. "But as the school year approaches, and with the [COVID-19] case numbers rapidly increasing, it is the one we need to make right now."

The state reported 1,729 new COVID-19 infections Friday, according to New Jersey's coronavirus dashboard. That's an 83% increase in daily coronavirus case numbers since the end of May. New Jersey's rate of COVID-19 transmission sits at 1.37.

Despite the reimplemented mask mandate, New Jersey schools are still expected to move full speed ahead with full-time, in-person learning this fall, Murphy said.

"We remain steadfast in the recognition that our children learn better in a classroom setting tailored for their educations," Murphy said.

Murphy said that the COVID-19 mask requirement in schools will be lifted "as soon as conditions allow." Getting more older students and adults vaccinated, as well as the authorization of a vaccine for students ages 11 and under, will be key to reaching that point, Murphy said. All teachers and staff, as well as students ages 12-18, are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. 

"But again, for the moment, this is where the virus demands us to be," Murphy said. "Vigilant against further spread, yet optimistic that this is just a bump in our journey."

When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released updated mask-wearing recommendations for all Americans in July, the public health agency also urged anyone entering a school building to wear a mask. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also recommended the wearing of masks by all students, teachers and staff in schools this upcoming academic year. 

The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, had already thrown its support behind a mask requirement in schools this fall, according to NJ.com.

New Jersey ended its COVID-19 indoor mask requirement in May but kept it in place at elementary and high schools. Then in June, the state removed the mask requirement in schools, and individual school districts were allowed to decide whether to implement mask-wearing requirements as part of their own health and safety protocols. Students, teachers and staff would be allowed to continue wearing masks if they so choose.

Murphy said in June that the mask mandate would not be reimplemented in schools unless there was a "dramatic change in our situation before the beginning of the school year."

But the CDC reversed course on recommendations issued in the spring and encouraged all Americans, regardless of their vaccination status, to wear face masks indoors while in counties reporting high or substantial COVID-19 transmission, and New Jersey amended its mask-wearing guidance last week.

New Jersey health officials now recommend all vaccinated and unvaccinated residents to mask up while indoors in settings where COVID-19 transmission is more likely. That includes crowded indoor places, activities involving close contact with others who may not be vaccinated and instances where the COVID-19 vaccine status of other people is unknown.

State officials have said they will take "more drastic action" if New Jersey's public health metrics do not improve. All but one New Jersey county – Warren County in North Jersey – is experiencing high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates, according to the CDC's data.

Murphy said in May that all school districts would be required to reopen for full-time, in-person learning this fall. The executive order signed last summer that allowed school districts to provide remote learning options amid the COVID-19 pandemic expired at the end of last school year.


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