Gov. Phil Murphy will lift the statewide mask mandate in New Jersey schools and daycares beginning March 7 as COVID hospitalizations and cases continue to plunge, but at a time when most young students are still not vaccinated.
Local school officials and daycare operators will have the power to decide whether to keep mask mandates for students, teachers and staff in place, Murphy said Monday at his weekly pandemic briefing.
“This is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids,” Murphy said.
“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from omicron and all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” Murphy said of the highly-contagious variant that appears to be waning.
A “growth in vaccinations” was also a major reason for lifting the mandate, Murphy said. But vaccinating young children has been a struggle in New Jersey.
In the three months since COVID vaccines became available to 5 to 11-year-olds, only about 1 of 4 kids in that age group are fully vaccinated. No vaccine has been approved for younger children that would go to a daycare facility, but Pfizer has applied to regulators to approve a vaccine for 6 months through 4-year-olds.
The issue has divided schools across the state with often intense debates and demonstrations pitting calls for individual choice against a public health measure that greatly reduces COVID’s spread.
The move comes as COVID metrics like cases and hospitalizations are dropping precipitously following a surge propelled by the omicron variant that began in December.
Murphy has said for weeks that he was considering dropping the mandate when COVID metrics began to fall in mid-January.
He said Monday that he’s waiting until March 7 to give local school districts time to decide whether to keep the mandate or eliminate it. The March date will also likely provide some warmer temperatures that would allow schools to open more windows and provide better ventilation than in the heart of winter.
The announcement will come less than a month since Murphy renewed the school mask mandate by declaring a public health emergency after the Legislature refused his authority to do so. Murphy’s executive order on Jan. 11 came several hours before the mandate would have expired and left masking decisions to local school districts.
At the end of the prior school year, Murphy had said he would allow school districts to determine whether students would be required to wear a mask. But he pulled that back in late summer when COVID unexpectedly surged due to the highly contagious delta variant.
COVID hospitalizations in New Jersey have plunged by more than a third to 1,910 on Sunday from a high of 6,089 on Jan. 11.
There were 1.625 new cases reported Sunday down from a high of 33,459 on Jan. 7 following a surge in testing before, during, and after the December holidays.
Case rates in schools have also dropped dramatically to less than five times what it was among students at the beginning of January and six times fewer among teachers and staff.
While New Jersey has one of the highest vaccination rates of any state, parents are still reluctant to get their young kids shots three months after the Food and Drug Administration approved them.
As of Feb. 1:
- 203,995 of approximately 761,000 5- to 11-year-olds in New Jersey have gotten two shots.
- That means 26.8% in that age group are fully vaccinated.
- 36.4% of 5- to 11-year-olds have received at least one dose.
Pediatricians and public health officials have raised concern about the long-term implications of the low vaccination rate in New Jersey and elsewhere among 5- to 11-year-olds, especially if another variant emerges as deadly and contagious as the delta and omicron strains.
Murphy said those vaccination rates are not rising “as fast as we’d like” added that the decrease in other COVID metrics was important.
“You’re trying to get a whole bunch of data streams together and make the best call you can,” he said.
Republican legislators said the move by Murphy showed that pressure to speed up a return to normalcy is working. Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, said the mandate should end immediately.
“Parents want their rights to make masking decisions for their kids restored today, not next month,” she said.
Murphy said pulling back too early could have lead to another surge.
Schools will not be permitted to ban the use of masks. Murphy said he hopes schools will take disciplinary action if anyone is bullied for continuing to wear a mask.
The state Health Department will issue suggestions to school districts on how best to mitigate the spread of COVID if they do not continue mask mandates.
Leaders of the state’s largest teachers union – the New Jersey Education Association – said they were “cautiously optimistic” that the mask mandate can be lifted given the current COVID trends.
Murphy’s move is the biggest drawback of COVID restrictions since he eliminated the indoor mask mandate and capacity restrictions for indoor public places like restaurants, stores and theaters. Businesses can choose to impose their own mandates.
The only facilities now that have a statewide mask mandate in New Jersey are government buildings. Murphy said his health team has been discussing lifting those mandates but had not yet made a decision.
Masks must still be worn at transportation facilities like airports and train stations as well as all healthcare facilities under a federal mandate.
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Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.