Students, staff, and visitors to New Jersey schools must wear face coverings until pandemic conditions improve.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 6, 2021
New Jersey students, staff, and school visitors will begin the 2021-22 school year fully masked in academic settings, regardless of their novel coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination status, Governor Phil Murphy announced Friday.
Murphy cited “the recent and rampant spread of the [COVID-19] delta variant, the fact that no child under the age of 12 is yet eligible to be vaccinated, and the reality that too many older students and their parents remain unvaccinated,” as the critical factors in the mandate.
“This is not an announcement that gives any of us, or me personally, any pleasure, but as the school year approaches and with the numbers rapidly increasing, it is the one that we need to make right now,” the governor said.
“Without a mask requirement, it’s not a matter of if we will have a school closing outbreak, but when,” he said.
Exceptions to the rule will be made “for students with documented medical conditions or disabilities which make wearing a mask either difficult or dangerous; rigorous activities in gym classes; excessive heat; playing a musical instrument; or eating in a classroom or cafeteria,” Murphy said.
With the delta variant “putting kids in its crosshairs,” the governor said the masking mandate was enacted in response to “how impactful masks are in slowing the spread of this virus.
“This is a simple step that each of us can take, kids and adults, that meaningfully pushes back against the transmission of this virus, and especially against this variant,” he said.
“As soon as conditions allow, we will lift this requirement again,” Murphy said. “This is not permanent.”
All New Jersey schoolchildren must still attend classes in person, the governor said, affirming his previously stated commitment to eliminating the remote-instruction option that districts provided during the past school year.
“Remote learning imposed intense challenges on educators trying to reach students without any real way of knowing if they were,” he said, adding that the setup “placed an undue burden on countless working parents.”
Dr. Jeanne Craft, President of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that despite data showing that children are less affected by the virus, “it doesn’t mean that they are not affected.
“If the stories I’m hearing from my colleagues in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Texas hold any water at all, which I believe they do, this is causing more severe diseases in children, and their pediatric ICUs are filling up with children with COVID,” Craft said. “That scares me as an ICU doctor.
“A hopeful spring has become a worrisome summer,” she said. “The conditions have changed. The risk is higher, especially for children. We need to move forward with an abundance of caution.”
New Jersey has sustained seven COVID-related pediatric deaths during the pandemic, which Craft said, “may sound small, but that means that there are seven families that will not see their children grow up, and that is huge to me.
“Children under 12 have no approved vaccine available to them as yet,” she said. “Elementary classrooms will be full of unvaccinated children, and some middle-school classrooms will be full of unvaccinated children; junior- and senior-high classrooms will have a mix.”
Craft said the strategies taken by the state emphasize “the value of both safe, face-to-face in-person instruction and a layered safety strategy that includes masks.”
Donna Pleus, President of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, called masking “a low-stakes solution to high-stakes public health crisis,” and highlighted the historic role school nurses have always played in preventing the spread of communicable diseases.
“Universal masking regardless of vaccination status is the evidence-based recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention,” Pleus said.
“It is our duty to assure that our school communities are kept safe from disease by implementing the safest public health mitigation strategies that have proven effective, including social distancing, proper ventilation, contact tracing, and most importantly, by making sure that universal masking is in place,” she said, citing decreased cases of “flu, strep, and RSV when masking and other mitigation strategies were in full force.”
“The public health messaging about masking has been muddled, but the science behind the recommendation is crystal-clear,” Peus said. “Masks protect students and staff from the invisible virus that’s attacking us.
“Vaccines are protective, but since the majority of children are not yet eligible, and this new variant is highly transmissible, we must use the tools that are available to us,” she said.
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