Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds, at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, said parents could expect an announcement regarding masking in Montclair Schools on Tuesday, March 1st and how the district will respond to New Jersey lifting the mask mandate in schools effective Monday, March 7. Local school districts can make determinations as to whether they should continue with mask mandates.

South Orange-Maplewood School District sent this announcement to parents, explaining its decision to continue with an indoor mask mandate:

The good news is that Essex County is currently at a moderate CALI (COVID Activity Level Index) score and there has been a dramatic decline in COVID-19 transmission in New Jersey and in our local community. In addition, we are proud of the vaccination rates in our school community. There is a high vaccination rate among our teachers and staff population (over 90%+) as well as our student population overall (ages 5 – 11, over 75%+ have received their 1st shots; ages 12 – 18, 90%+).

However, even in light of the trend we are seeing, in discussion with our local health departments and school nurses, our District is making the very thoughtful decision to continue with our ‘indoor school mask’ mandate. One of the key factors in our determination is that we are still awaiting guidance from state health and education officials concerning how to prevent disease transmission and implement contact tracing and quarantining if the indoor mask mandate is lifted.

We understand that this may be disappointing to some, however, we are instead choosing to implement a cautious roll-back of our masking mandate as well as some mitigation strategies. Below is a phased timeline of mitigation roll-backs:

The announcement was not what SOMA Safe Return to Schools, a parent led group of more than 1000, wanted to hear.

“While adults are socializing at bars, concerts and sporting events without masks, our children continue to carry the burden and are forced to operate in a highly restrictive environment,” says Kate Walker, co-leader, SAFE RETURN FROM SCHOOL and South Orange parent of three. “It’s critical that we get rid of outdated measures like plexiglass dividers in the cafeteria – something that is no longer recommended by the state – and prioritize helping our children heal from the last two years of trauma.”

“These ongoing COVID restrictions are contributing to learning loss as well as a mental health crisis in our community,” says Gina Preoteasa, South Orange parent of three children in the district. “Our kids have been living under socially repressive protocols for two years now and it’s time for them to end – especially as the District has reported a 90%+ vaccination rate for teachers, staff and kids over 12, and a 75% rate for students under 12.”

The group cited the low number of COVID cases on the district’s dashboard — five new cases this week, down from only 11 the previous two weeks.

Specifically, the group is asking Dr. Ronald Taylor, Superintendent, and the Board of Education for the following:

1. Make masks optional in indoor and outdoor settings on March 7: With the support of Governor Murphy and in following with the nearly 200 N.J. districts who have followed suit, SOMSD needs to adopt a “masks optional” policy for both outdoor and indoor school settings. One-way masking has proven effective and is an option for families who feel more comfortable doing so. Families who see the health benefits in letting their students learn mask free will also be allowed that choice. We further demand that the outdoor mask optional policy remain in place regardless of COVID cases in schools or locally, regardless of whether hospitalizations increase and regardless of outbreaks, in accordance with the CDC and state recommendations.

2. Remove plexiglass partitions in cafeterias: In addition to the numerous studies that have found plastic partitions at shared tables ineffective or even causing more risk for spread, they are no longer part of the CDC or N.J. Department of Health (DOH) school guidance even when students are unmasked in the cafeteria. These partitions create an isolating lunch experience for students during what should be a social growth experience for them. We urge the district to discontinue the use of this ineffective measure that adds to the emotional and social burden that our children are still being asked to carry.

3. End the travel quarantine for unvaccinated students: Local private preschools have done away with quarantining after domestic travel for the unvaccinated. It’s time that SOMSD does the same. With covid restrictions lessening in New Jersey and every other state, there’s no extra risk associated with time spent outside the tri-state region versus staying within our state, or even towns. A negative PCR test prior to return to school after travel would be a much more realistic alternative to quarantine in an effort to keep children where they are best served: in school.

4. Implement Test to Stay: On February 2, the N.J. DOH issued guidance for districts to implement a “test to stay” policy, which would allow for healthy, unvaccinated students who have had a COVID exposure to remain in school until a positive test. This is a crucial element to keeping our pre-K students, all of whom are too young to be vaccinated, in school – as well as students whose parents opt to not vaccinate them. Several other states have used this system successfully since the state of this school year, and SOMSD has the opportunity to pioneer this policy that keeps students where they belong while healthy: in school.

Plexiglass divider in cafeteria.