Gov. Phil Murphy announced today that masks will be mandated indoors in New Jersey schools for the beginning of the upcoming school year.
“Due to the recent and rampant spread of the Delta variant, the fact that no child under the age of twelve is yet eligible to be vaccinated, and the reality that too many older students and their parents remain unvaccinated, all students, educators, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks inside of school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, for the start of the 2021-2022 academic year,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s executive order applies to public, private and parochial schools.
“This is not an announcement that gives any of us, or me personally, any pleasure,” he said. “But as the school year approaches, and with the numbers rapidly increasing, it is the one that we need to make right now.”
As with previous school masking requirements, there are a number of exceptions for activities such as rigorous physical exercise, eating, and playing musical instruments. Students with documented medical conditions and disabilities may also be exempt in some cases.
Murphy reaffirmed that, despite the new mandate, schools will still reopen for full-time, in-person learning as previously planned.
“We remain steadfast in the recognition that our children learn better in a classroom setting tailored for their educations,” he said.
Murphy also assured that the new mandate was not an irreversible one, and that lower case numbers and higher vaccination rates could lead to his lifting the mandate.
“As soon as conditions allow – please God, sooner than later – we will lift this requirement again,” Murphy said. “This is not permanent.”
Following Murphy at the announcement in East Brunswick, several key stakeholders in the medical and educational system voiced support for the new mandate, among them Marie Blistan, the president of the New Jersey Education Association.
“Thank you, Governor Murphy, for standing on principle, but also for doing the right thing,” Blistan said. “By taking the action today of requiring masking, you have removed the uncertainty for many about the coming school year.”
In a joint statement, the chairs of the Education and Health Committees in both the State Senate and Assembly similarly lauded Murphy’s decision.
“As COVID cases continue to rise, I am relieved to hear that masks will be required within schools across the state,” Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in the statement. “Masks are our first line of defense against this virus, and this will be critical in protecting our students, educators, support staff and their families this fall.”
Even before it was officially announced, however, the mandate drew blowback from state Republicans, among them Murphy’s gubernatorial opponent Jack Ciattarelli.
“Let me be clear, I oppose Governor Murphy’s mask mandate for students,” Ciattarelli said this morning. “The science is clear: nearly all children who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and wearing masks for children is terrible for their social and emotional development.”
Dr. Jeanne Craft, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, disagreed with that.
“There are children in the hospital with COVID. Even though they are less affected, it doesn’t mean they’re not affected, ” Craft said. ” The New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics supports an evidence based approach to protecting children and communities from the hazards of COVID-19 as children re-enter school. Safe reentry is based on the best scientific evidence and expert guidance available.”
But Murphy, possibly with this criticism in mind, ended today’s conference with a plea to stop the politicization of masking.
“I would just beg folks … to a) know that we’re making this decision based on the facts, there’s no speculation here, and b) let’s leave the politics at the door,” he said. “This is not about politics. This is above politics. This is doing the right thing, and I would beg folks to see that, even if they’re not happy about this.”