New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced that he will lift the state’s mask mandate for schools and child care settings next month in a move that highlights a growing desire across the country to shift away from certain mitigation measures and into a “new normal” as coronavirus cases fall.
“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from omicron, and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” Murphy said at a press conference, adding that “this is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids.”
He made clear that school districts can still decide to enforce their own mask policies.
“We are not removing the ability of individual district leaders to maintain and enforce such a policy within their schools or any private child care provider from maintaining such a policy within their business should community conditions require,” Murphy said. “Likewise, any student, educator or staff member or visitor who chooses to continue masking up while indoors may freely do so.”
The announcement follows a decision last month by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, to nix the mask mandate for K-12 schools and comes as other democratic governors are signaling similar shifts, including in neighboring New York and Connecticut.
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In Illinois, a circuit judge ruled to suspend Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders on masking and quarantining for schools last Friday – though the governor said his attorney general would appeal the ruling immediately.
To mask or not to mask has become one of the most politically divisive COVID-19 culture wars to spin out of the pandemic. While Democrats favor mask requirements in schools over Republicans, poll after poll shows that a majority of parents support masking requirements in school – a finding that’s held steady for more than a year.
The Biden administration has gone head-to-head with GOP-controlled states that adopted laws banning school districts from implementing mask mandates, going so far as to threaten to recoup American Rescue Plan funding from states like Arizona, which had plans to limit $163 million in federal aid to schools that don’t require masks. The White House has also covered the salaries of school board members and district leaders in Florida after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis docked their pay for defying his executive order that bars districts from requiring students and staff to mask.
Meanwhile, some states, including North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, have been experimenting with rolling back contact tracing operations, and at least a dozen states and the District of Columbia have adopted test-to-stay policies in order to keep asymptomatic students and teachers in the classroom after exposures.
“While universal case investigation and contact tracing during the initial phase of the pandemic was justified in the attempt to contain the pandemic, most experts in public health agree this is no longer optimal,” Oklahoma’s public health officials said in a statement last week, noting that the shift will allow case investigators and epidemiologists to prioritize following up on outbreaks or clusters as well as individuals in high-risk settings after a positive COVID-19 result.
Schools experienced significant disruptions early in the new year as the highly transmissible omicron variant caused infections and exposures to spike, leading to severe staff shortages and student absences throughout most of January. At one point, roughly 10% of the country’s schools were forced to temporarily close or pivot to remote learning.
But such disruptions are slowing and the latest data shows that they dropped dramatically this week to levels not seen since October, according to the school tracking site Burbio.
This week, the total number of schools that experienced at least one day of disruption dropped to 539 – a 75% decrease compared to last week’s total of 2,128 disruptions and a drop of 93% from the yearly high of 7,462 disruptions during the week of Jan. 10.
Moreover, the average number of schools disrupted per day last week was only 182, according to Burbio, indicating that 99.8% of K-12 public schools were operating on any given day last week.
The developments come as coronavirus vaccines are available for all children ages 5 and older. But vaccine coverage in children 5-11 remains the lowest of any age group, with just 22% fully vaccinated.
Last week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said that her decision as to whether to remove the mask mandate in schools would hinge not only on case numbers but also vaccination rates among young children.
“It’s something we get asked a lot about: When are masks coming off in schools? We’ll be making some announcements in the short term as we see these numbers progressing,” she said on Friday during a press conference.
“The more children we have vaccinated, the safer they will be when they go to school at the time they get to where they won’t need a mask anymore,” she said. “It’s something we’re striving for, but we’re just not there yet.”
Many public health officials and groups say it’s too soon to relax mitigation measures – especially at a time when the U.S. is still averaging more new infections than any previous wave of the pandemic.
And infections among children remain “extremely high,” according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
The American Academy of Pediatrics tells U.S. News in an email that it “has not changed its recommendation calling for universal masking in the schools.”
The group said in a press release last month that “at this time, when more than 2 million children have been infected with COVID-19 during the month of January alone – it is important to make sure children and staff wear masks whether or not they’ve been vaccinated.”
But some experts have called for an end to school mask mandates. One group of prominent doctors want masks to be optional in U.S. schools by Feb. 15.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently predicted school mask mandates would soon be a thing of the past.
“Schools in the state of Connecticut will very quickly lift mask requirements for students,” Gottlieb said Sunday during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” As it stands, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s school mask mandate expires next Tuesday.
“I think we are going to see the same thing in New York, New Jersey,” he said, “other states where omicron has come down, where vaccination rates are high. We’re going to see states do that.”
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools for all students, staff and visitors ages 2 and older.
The CDC also recommends everyone regardless of vaccination status wear a mask indoors in public if they are in an area of substantial or high coronavirus transmission. Every single state is experiencing a high level of community transmission, and 99.9% of counties in the U.S. are showing a high level of transmission, according to CDC data.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky at a press conference last week said that data on hospitalizations and deaths should be used to determine when it is time to change behaviors related to the coronavirus.
“We will continue to reevaluate, and we know people are anxious,” she said.