UPDATE: After Murphy’s ‘Strong Recommendation’ on Masking, Are Districts Changing Policies?

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Yesterday Gov. Phil Murphy “strongly recommended” that people wear masks indoors. His public statement came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance saying even people who have been vaccinated should wear masks indoors–including in schools–due to the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19. At the same time, New Jersey’s teacher union, NJEA, announced that all school students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks. “This is a fast developing situation, obviously. But if the CDC guidance says that masking in schools will keep students and staff safer, then schools should follow that guidance,” said Steven Baker, spokesperson for the NJEA.

How are school leaders reacting? Especially since the New Jersey Department of Education has taken remote learning off the table as an alternative, even for student age groups not yet eligible for vaccines? In light of the new CDC guidance and Murphy’s statement, here’s a rundown of recent district announcements on masks in schools.

  • Newark Public Schools District will mandate masking on school property. 
  • Camden Public Schools will be require masks for everyone in the building, along with social distancing and other safety measures.
  • Montclair superintendent Jonathan Ponds says district policy currently requires mask-wearing in schools. He said he “will refer to Essex County guidelines for students and staff in the fall…We are aware that there may be a mask mandate that comes down. Please be prepared for that if it happens.” 
  • Paterson Public Schools will require masks, although when students have outdoor recess they can take masks off if they remain three feet to six feet apart from each other.
  • In Elizabeth Public Schools, “all students are required to wear face coverings: while arriving and departing from school, in any area inside and outside of the classroom, and while waiting for or riding on a school bus.  Students excluded from face covering requirements include students with special needs who are unable to tolerate a face covering.”
  • Jersey City will require masks.
  • Lakewood Public Schools will continue tight restrictions that  include masks on all students and staff, temperature checks before entering school buildings and boarding buses, and plastic dividers on every desk.
  • Cherry Hill’s current published policy will require all students to wear masks when the school year opens with certain exceptions in place, such as when “eating or drinking, exposed to extreme heat or during high-intensity aerobic or anaerobic activity.” Superintendent Joseph Meloche said, “It’s very critical to understand and to know that if and when those guidelines change the mandates, we will reflect those changes in our plans.”
  • Willingboro Public Schools will mandate universal mask-wearing for students, staff, essential workers and contractors while on district property. 
  • Lenape Regional High School District intends for masks to be optional because of  “the negative impacts associated with masks that have accrued through the pandemic, including to social-emotional wellness.” 
  • Superintendent George Rafferty of Mount Laurel Township Schools says masks will be optional, citing the town’s low transmission rates. 
  • Cumberland Regional School District Superintendent Steve Price says masks will be optional. (Cumberland is a county with a low transmission rate.) He added, the rule will “always be subject to change based on health department directives or guidance and/or state mandates.”
  • Freehold Borough School District Rocco Tomazic said unless Murphy issues a mandate, masking will be optional in district schools, although “strongly encouraged” for the unvaccinated. When asked if thought Murphy would do so, he said, “I don’t know, if there are more kids in the hospital or people start dying, but I didn’t see the [mandatory mask] policies as overly rational in the first place.”
  • Brick Public Schools Superintendent Thomas G. Farrell said, “the plan was for Brick schools to stay ‘optional’ as of right now and as we await further guidance from the State and NJDOE.”
  • Barnegat Superintendent Brian Latwis is taking a “wait and see” approach. The district will use a “data matrix” to ascertain whether students and staff should wear masks. They’ll also look at transmission data and absenteeism.
  • Jackson Superintendent Nicole Pormilli says masks will remain optional. 
  •  Old Bridge Superintendent Jared Rumage said it was too early to make a decision. 
  •  Point Pleasant Borough superintendent Adam Angelozzi said for now masks will remain optional.
  • West Orange superintendent Scott Cascone says the district is undecided. “Presently, the district is working through its school reopening plans in several subcommittees: health and safety, curriculum instruction, and assessment, and mental health and social emotional well-being.”
  • Woodbridge superintendent Joe Massimino said “he is waiting for further guidance from Gov. Murphy, and the state Dept. of Education and Dept. of Health, and will make a decision for the fall in mid- to late-August.”
  • Ridgewood superintendent Thomas Gorman said, “the district would consider what’s happening locally when crafting a new mask policy.”
  • Scotch Plains-Fanwood superintendent  Joan Mast said, “the district is closely monitoring the need for masking in the fall…The district anticipates updates in the near future from the DOE.”
  • Livingston superintendent Matthew Block said, “We have not yet made any decision regarding our mask protocols for the opening of the school year. Guidance is evolving, and so are the circumstances surrounding the virus.”
  • While superintendents from Middletown, Holmdel, Howell, Ocean and Toms River schools and the Freehold Regional High School District didn’t respond to reporters’ queries, some board of education members did. 
  •  Middletown Board of Education president H. Barry Heffernan: “I feel the science has proven most children to be immune from any serious symptoms and rarely show signs of this illness.”
  • Toms River Board of Education Joseph Nardini: “My personal opinion is that it should be a parental decision whether a child should wear a mask in school. I do not feel children should be prohibited from wearing a mask if they so choose. Government and bureaucrats should not be able to override parents.”

In other school-mask news, Princeton lawyer Bruce Afran filed suit in federal court challenging any current or future mask mandates. The suit is against Murphy, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, and Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan. “All day long, repeatedly teachers are telling children to keep masks up, put it back on your nose, children are constantly disciplined verbally,” Afran said during a press conference, referring to the initial mask mandates in many schools. “It fundamentally destroys the education environment and fundamentally violates the right of privacy of children.”

Will Murphy issue a mandate? Or will he continue to bow to local control? Will the state Department of Education make recommendations or is mask-wearing policies dependent on the will of each school board? Stay tuned.

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