New Jersey is gradually working its way towards maskless schools. Many of its school districts were hit with teacher shortages, which caused the state to ask retired teachers to return to the classroom. Photo credit: Rodnae productions

Eff it, mask-off. New Jersey lifts universal school mandate, scheduled to go maskless in early March

Breaking form, New Jersey and Connecticut are among the first in the tri-state area to announce upcoming mandate suspensions for schools. Yet with New York possibly extending requirements, are the other two being hasty? Gov. Murphy does not think so.

New Jersey students and educational staff will join domestic and global counterparts in admonishing masks being worn throughout the school day. As announced by Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday, the order will be effective on March 7. The Garden state is now reporting continued decreases in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, despite seeing spikes late last year. Hence, the governor expressed confidence in “tak[ing] another step toward normalcy” for schools and childcare facilities.

“I must thank the overwhelming majority of students, parents, administrators, educators, and support staffers who have worn their masks without problem or protest since our schools reopened for in-person learning,” relayed Governor Murphy in a press release on Monday

While state officials urge parents of children five years old and up to vaccinate, the Health Department reports 2 out of 3 have not taken the COVID-19 shot. “There is this large undercurrent of vaccine hesitancy especially among the young . . . not young children, but young parents,” Ocean County family practitioner, Mike Cascarina explained to Northjersey.com.

Gov. Murphy emphasized, “Given the continued drop in new cases and hospitalizations, projections indicating a continued decline over the coming weeks, and the continued growth of vaccinations for our school-aged population, we believe that we can responsibly end the universal mask mandate.”

In addition, he plans to sign an executive order before the Public Health Emergency expires on February 10, extending last month’s state-declared public health emergency for an additional thirty days. The order allows for continued COVID-19 response and resource allocation. 

“Mask on? Fuck it, mask off.”

Some educators welcome the change as mandate implications have altered some of the communal fabric among staff and students, taking away from daily interpersonal relationship building.

“In my opinion, lifting the mask mandate is political,” asserted New Jersey educator and Dean of students, Raymond Blanks to the Ark. “From my perspective, the mandate has [mainly] affected my school in terms of compliance. We often have to check that students and staff are wearing them correctly. And it has, in my opinion, taken away from the little things that brighten my day, like when I see students smile. Some of that has been lost.”

Although he mentions multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at his institution–including teachers who got sick while wearing the covering– Blanks respects those who choose to don them despite possible contention either way. “Overall, the track record of the mask, regardless if they are wearing it or not, hasn’t really done a whole lot to curb the virus. But, I also don’t knock someone who feels protected by, and continues wearing, it. The [better] question is how safe and secure do certain teachers, students or parents feel knowing others have a decision to wear it or not.”

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To that end, a few are not so keen on the move. “I feel like the school system doesn’t care about their personnel,” lamented a New Jersey bus driver to the Ark. They wished to remain anonymous. “I’ve personally had four students contract COVID-19 while going to school with no symptoms. That was super scary. [Even worse] three of [the four] are vaccinated and still got sick. Knowing that they have no symptoms whatsoever, I’m scared [for my well-being]. I think they don’t care about us.”

Indeed, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the rate of infection and symptomatic illness for children between five and 17 was on par with adults aged 18 to 49. However, their rates are higher than those 50 and older. Often, children go under-detected. 

Furthermore, the CDC also reinforced the importance of masks in COVID-19 prevention via a study on face masks’ indoor effectiveness in California. The government agency purports that consistent use decreases transmission by 56 to 83 percent, depending on the type of covering used. 

. . . .
Newarkers protest during 2020 George Floyd demonstrations observing masks protocol. Photo credit: Alex Robinson on Unsplash

Moreover, the bend in rules may point to the severe teacher shortage in New Jersey. Due to the staffing crisis, state lawmakers passed legislation allowing teachers six or more months into their retirement to return with a one-year contract. In addition, they can receive their pension while working.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented our schools with many challenges, including significant teacher and staff shortages in districts throughout New Jersey. We cannot allow these gaps in staffing to stand in the way of our students receiving the high-quality education our state is known for,” expressed cosponsors of the bill, Assemblywomen Mila Jasey, (D-Essex) and Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), in a statement.

Regardless of masks on or off, the state is pushing for more in-person learning. “We know that students benefit from in-person learning, and safely continuing in-person instruction remains a priority,” said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “These recommendations will help local health departments and schools in handling COVID-19 cases and exposures among students and staff to ensure healthy outcomes for all.”

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In January, the state released an updated guide for schools to use regarding exclusion criteria to reflect CDC’s announcement of a recent reduction in isolation and quarantine timeline for illness. Included in the instructions are ways that regions with very-high COVID-19 community transmission.

Still, there are portions of the state that remain steadfast on their anti-COVID mission. In Newark, a current executive order signed by Mayor Ras Baraka requires not just masks, but proof of vaccination to enter a majority of indoor establishments since December 2021. Earlier this month, the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city extended the ordinance.

“There is no reason to believe that this proof of vaccination order will significantly reduce COVID infections. NYC has and has had a similar mandate since August. Despite this, they are seeing a positivity rate much higher than ours right now in Newark,” Anthony Diaz said in a statement to Ark Republic. 

Diaz who is running in this year’s Newark mayoral elections furthered. “[New York’s] vaccination rate is similar to ours in NJ even though NJ has never had such a broad mandate.” 

City mayor Ras Baraka tested positive for COVID-19 just before the 2021 Christmas holiday. He said in his extension announcement, “We need to continue wearing our masks and getting vaccinated, as another form of protection, to remain on this path of progress.”

Ultimately, the order affects many small businesses and mixed-use facilities that depend heavily on foot traffic. To boot, it negatively impacts the quality of life for residents. These days, personal choice is but an illusion . . . or executive order.

Kaia Shivers contributed to this article.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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