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February 07, 2022

New Jersey dropping school mask mandate as omicron surge relents

Districts can choose to keep the policy in place or discard it

New Jersey students, teachers and staff may soon be permitted to take off their face masks while at school.

The state's mask requirement for K-12 schools and child care centers will be lifted March 7, nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to shut down in-person learning. Districts will have the choice to implement their own masking requirements or discard the policy.

Students, teachers, staff and visitors may choose to still wear masks in school districts that no longer require them. The state health department will issue updated guidance in the coming weeks for school districts on when mask-wearing may be appropriate.

New Jersey's public health emergency, which was reimplemented last month amid the COVID-19 surge caused by the omicron variant, will remain in place for at least 30 more days to allow for the expiration of the mask requirement.

"I must thank the overwhelming majority of students, parents, administrators, educators and support staffers who have stood tall as role models ever since our schools returned to in-person instruction by wearing your masks day in and day out without problem or protest," Gov. Phil Murphy said. "You truly represent our highest New Jersey values of selflessness, community spirit, collective responsibility, looking out for others. You are the reason why we're ready to take this step."

Murphy pointed to New Jersey's declining number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations for the state deciding to end the school mask mandate.

Last month, New Jersey reported a record-high of more than 39,000 new COVID-19 infections and a positivity rate of more than 34%. The state recorded 1,714 new COVID-19 cases and a positivity rate of 6.76% Monday. COVID-19 infections have dropped by 50% just in the past week, Murphy said.

The state's rate of COVID-19 transmission has also declined to 0.52 over the last month, according to New Jersey's coronavirus database.

New Jersey reported more than 5,700 COVID-19 hospitalizations in early January. The state recorded only 1,910 hospitalizations Monday. Hospitalizations have declined by 66% over the past two weeks, Murphy said.

The number of COVID-19 infections among students and teachers have each plummeted by at least 80% over the last month. The state has recorded 465 COVID-19 outbreaks and 3,138 cases among students and teachers this academic year.

The lifting of the statewide school mask requirement will come as warmer weather in the spring shifts more school activities outdoors and provides districts with additional ventilation and airflow flexibility, according to Murphy.

Murphy said that the state decision's to end its school mask rule is part of larger shift in how New Jersey handles COVID-19 moving forward.

"We're not going to manage COVID to zero," Murphy said. "We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to the endemic phase of this virus. We're optimistic that given the decreased severity of this new variant and the continued increase in vaccinations, that we are finally nearing this inflection point."

The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, wrote in a statement that it was "cautiously optimistic" about the relaxation of the statewide requirement.

"As we have said from the beginning of the pandemic, it is critical to follow the data and listen to public health experts when implementing or removing COVID protocols," the union wrote. "As of today, that data is trending strongly in the right direction, and we look forward to additional public health guidance supporting the move away from mandatory masking in schools."

All K-12 students, teachers and staff, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination statuses, have been required to wear masks since most schools resumed in-person instruction in September 2020.

New Jersey had planned to end its mandate for the current academic year. But it reimplemented the mandate when the delta variant caused a surge of infections last summer when most students were not eligible to be vaccinated.

Only students with documented medical conditions and disabilities that make wearing a mask difficult or dangerous have been exempt from the rule. The requirement also has not applied to certain extracurricular activities and eating or drinking in a school building.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended masks in school settings.

New Jersey schools have mostly operated in-person this year, though some pivoted to remote learning during the omicron surge. All teachers and staff have been required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face regular testing.

Children ages 5-17 are now eligible to be vaccinated, while kids under the age of 5 may soon qualify in the coming weeks. More than 76% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and close to 91% have received at least one vaccine dose.

Pennsylvania's COVID-19 school mask requirement ended in December after a lengthy court battle over its legality. The School District of Philadelphia's mask rule remains in place.

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