Gov. Phil Murphy's announcement Friday that masks will be required at schools this fall — an about-face from a few weeks ago, when the governor said masking policies would be up to local districts — essentially maintains the status quo in Montclair.

All students and staff in Montclair district buildings are currently required to wear masks, unless a disability otherwise prevents it. And the district has stressed in materials and statements this summer that its return-to-schools plan is fluid is subject to changing circumstances and guidance from state and county health departments.

“We are aware that there may be a mask mandate that comes down,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at a July 26 Board of Education meeting. “Please be prepared for that if it happens.”

Murphy's executive order, effective Monday, is in line with recent calls from the Centers for Disease Control and the Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics for masks at schools this fall. He said while the announcement "gives us no pleasure, I know that by taking this precaution we can keep our schools open while also keeping our children safe" — noting vaccines are currently unavailable to children under 12 years of age.

The governor also said the mandate would be lifted "when we can do so safely."

The news was welcomed by the New Jersey Education Association, of which Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller is an officer — currently its vice president, and its president effective Sept. 1.

“We support the Murphy administration’s decision to follow public health guidance and require masking for students and staff in public schools as the new school year begins. It is the prudent, responsible course of action in the face of the resurgence of COVID-19 across the state," the NJEA wrote in a statement from Spiller, current President Marie Blistan and current Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty, who will be succeeded by former Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson in September.

The NJEA said it wished the situation was different but "we have to act based on facts today."

"Those facts point unambiguously toward the need to continue masking and other safety precautions in our public schools," it said. reports Murphy was greeted at Friday's announcement — held at a school in East Brunswick — by more than 100 protesters. Some had signs that read “Unmask our kids!” and “King Murphy … leave our kids alone.”

The governor responded to those objecting to masks in announcing the mandate "Anyone who says we can safely reopen our schools without masks is quite simply lying to you."

The debate over masking in schools hasn't been as intense in Montclair — overshadowed by this past year's dispute between the MEA (with support from the NJEA) and the school district over whether and when it was safe to return to aging Montclair school buildings at all. Students began returning for a hybrid schedule in April, though some older students weren't back until the final weeks of school.

But there are occasional signs of discord over the requirements, with some parents frustrated by restrictions they argue aren't necessary for young children, who are generally  considered the least likely to fall seriously ill from coronavirus. For instance, one participant at this week's demonstration outside of Spiller's fundraiser at the MC Hotel — where protesters objected to big money in local politics, the mayor's own connection to the powerful union and what they alleged was his influence over school policy — held up a sign saying “Stop harming children. No masks in school.” But other protesters told that person they weren't troubled by masks, and that the sign distracted from their overall message.

Montclair schools are planning a virtual town hall on Aug. 12 to discuss back-to-school plans. All New Jersey schools are required to have only full-time, in-person instruction in the fall, and Ponds has said it would take a state order to put aside Montclair's own plans to return.

Under current plans, when Montclair students return in the fall, the school won't require classrooms to space them 3 feet apart, as the latest Centers for Disease Control guidance advises but does not require. “When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking,” the CDC’s website says. The advisory was last updated July 9.

“We are aware, very, very aware, of the need to have mitigating factors in our buildings,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the July board meeting.

Montclair Local coronavirus tracker

Ponds said he expects the students to have normal recess, with outdoor learning and outdoor lunchtime when possible. The district has also purchased desk shields to place between students in school cafeterias, to be used when inclement weather prevents outdoor lunch.

In July, Murphy had said he considers mask requirements for schools this fall to be a local decision — and that it would take a “wholesale deterioration in health data” for him to order them statewide.

But with the ultra-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus becoming dominant and vaccination rates slowing, New Jersey's figures have been getting steadily worse for weeks. As of Friday, most New Jersey counties — including Essex — showed “substantial” coronavirus transmission on a tracker the CDC updates daily. Only Warren County showed “moderate” transmission. Cape May, Cumberland, Burlington and Monmouth counties showed “high” transmission.

The CDC urges masking in indoor public spaces in areas with substantial transmission. Murphy has urged indoor masking as well in recent weeks, but has not required it since late May.

The state's rate of transmission — an indication of how many new people each person with the virus is infecting — was at 1.37 Friday. The RT has seen a slight dip in recent days, but was well below 1.0 at periods this spring. Any number above 1.0 indicates growing spread.

In Montclair as of Friday, 71% of people of any age were vaccinated, putting it well ahead of the state figure of 58%. Statewide, 66% of people had received at least one dose.

As of Thursday, Montclair had seen 2,773 coronavirus cases to date — 20 in the last seven days. The seven-day figure is an improvement over the near-and-above 30 per week Montclair saw through most of mid-July — but in early June, seven day totals were often as low as 1 to 4. Montclair releases updated figures late each afternoon.

— By Louis C. Hochman, with prior reporting by Talia Wiener