The New York Times reported this morning that, nearly two years after Covid first began shutting down schools across New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy plans to end the state’s school and child care mask mandate in the second week of March. The governor formally announced the policy at today’s weekly Covid briefing.
“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 at the briefing. “We are also buoyed by the continued growth in vaccinations and the expectation that the vaccine will be made available to children under the age of five in early March.”
Last summer, when the Delta variant was raging and many children remained ineligible for vaccination, Murphy announced that fully in-person schooling would resume throughout the state for the 2021-22 school year, but that students, teachers, staff, and visitors would all have to wear masks while in school buildings.
Murphy also mandated that school employees either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, but stopped short of doing the same for students.
The decision to require masks drew ire from many Republicans, including gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli, who called the mandate “terrible for [children’s] social and emotional development.” Murphy’s frequent response was that while masking in schools brought him no joy, it was the right thing to do to prevent community spread – and polls showed a majority of New Jerseyans agreed.
The Omicron variant, which began hitting the state in December and eventually caused case levels to skyrocket to never-before-seen heights, delayed any changes to the mandate even as more children got vaccinated. But now, with at least the first Omicron surge in the background, Murphy and his administration apparently feel comfortable lifting some restrictions.
Notably, the repeal of the mandate only applies on a statewide level; individual school districts and child care providers can choose to keep mandates in place if they wish.
“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.
Legislative Republicans, who have consistently criticized Murphy’s Covid policies since the beginning of the pandemic, hailed the decision as a victory while also pressing Murphy to enact the change sooner.
“Parents want their rights to make masking decisions for their kids restored today, not next month,” State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) said in a statement. “Governor Murphy should Give It Back now. There’s no excuse to wait any longer.”
This story was updated at 1:22 p.m. with added information from the governor’s Covid briefing.