NJ ending schools mask mandate, but no decision in Montclair yet
By TALIA WIENER
Montclair school leaders haven’t yet decided whether they’ll continue to require students and staff members to wear masks after March 7, when New Jersey’s statewide mandate for masks in schools and day care facilities ends.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Feb. 7 he’d be ending the mandate, calling it a “huge step back to normalcy.” The change marks the first time since most schools reopened to some level of in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year that masks won’t be required by a state rule.
But individual districts and day care centers will still be able to require masks on their own, if they choose to. Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and Montclair Board of Education President Latifah Jannah both said Monday they are awaiting further guidance from the state and will meet with all stakeholders.
In December, the Montclair Township Council instituted a mask mandate for indoor businesses and venues open to the public, and recently extended that rule to March 31. Township spokeswoman Katya Wowk said Tuesday the township rule would also apply to schools for as long as it remains in place.
Murphy, in making his announcement this week, cited improving coronavirus figures, just weeks after the state experienced a major surge fueled in part by the omicron variant of the virus.
“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations for omicron and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” Murphy said during a Feb. 7 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 5 in early March.”
On Feb. 1, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech requested emergency authorization for their vaccine for children under the age of 5.
The state Department of Health will release updated guidelines in the coming weeks to help school districts make decisions as to whether and when masks should be worn, Murphy said.
“Decisions like these, balancing public health with the need to get back to some semblance of normalcy, are not easy,” Murphy said. “This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgement that we can responsibly live with this thing.”
The March 7 date for the mandate expiration will give school districts time to decide whether to keep mask rules of their own, Murphy said Monday. The March date will also coincide with warmer temperatures, making open windows and outdoor activities more feasible, he said.
As of Monday, Feb. 7, there had been 417 student cases and 114 staff cases since the beginning of the 2021-22 year, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard. Of those, 114 student cases and 37 staff cases were in the week leading up to Dec. 23, the last day before winter break. Numbers have since tapered off, though it’s hard to compare figures across time periods; the district’s contract for in-class testing expired in December, but it continues to hold after-school testing events.
Montclair schools pivoted to remote learning for the two days before the district’s winter break and offered students a 10-day remote learning period in January as cases surged throughout the state.
The Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend universal masking in schools for anyone over the age of 2. Murphy said the state and CDC had been in “lockstep” throughout the pandemic, but since New Jersey was one of the first states hit hard by the omicron variant, it was also seeing one of the earliest plunges in cases.
“Because we've got through it first, we can responsibly take this step,” Murphy said.
Murphy also announced he’d sign an executive order to continue the state’s public health emergency, which had been set to expire Feb. 10, for an additional 30 days. This allows the state to continue with COVID-19 vaccination and testing processes and institute mandates.
In a statement Monday, leaders of the New Jersey Education Association — including union President and Montclair Mayor Sean M. Spiller, as well as NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson, former president of the Montclair Education Association — said they were “cautiously optimistic” that the mandate could be lifted safely, given recent case trends.
“As we have said from the beginning of the pandemic, it is critical to follow the data and listen to public health experts when implementing or removing COVID protocols,” the statement says. “As of today, that data is trending strongly in the right direction, and we look forward to additional public health guidance supporting the move away from mandatory masking in schools.”
The union leadership also urged Murphy to continue analyzing COVID data and to do “whatever is necessary to best protect the health and well-being of students and staff,” including the possibility of reimposing the mask mandate.
Local districts deciding whether to continue masking based upon local conditions is “appropriate,” the statement says.
“We also urge Gov. Murphy to direct the Department of Health to provide clear guidelines and metrics for local districts to use as they decide whether to continue mandatory masking based on local conditions,” the statement says.
Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck has not yet responded to an email sent to her union address Monday.
President of the Montclair PTA Council Tessie Thomas declined to comment for this story.