New Jersey School Leaders ‘Confused’ By New Masks-in-Schools Guidance

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Update: Gov. Murphy just announced that masks will not be required on school buses beginning March 7th and school districts can decide to drop the transportation requirement this week if they want to. 

On Friday morning, New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli and Department of Education Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan led a Zoom call with school superintendents, nurses and other staff members as the state pivots to a mask-optional policy on March 7th, a week from today.

How’d it go? According to Spotlight–and the chat on the edge of the Zoom screen—not so well. Why? First, because the “guidance” provided by the Murphy Administration was too vague to be useful to school leaders and, second, because the NJ guidance conflicts with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which now recommends that healthy people in areas considered at “low” and “medium” risk can make their own choices whether to wear masks indoors, including in schools. (This new tool from the CDC shows that 14 New Jersey counties are at “low-risk” for Covid-19 infection and 7 are at “medium-risk.” The 7 medium-risk counties are Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem.)

Participants in the Zoom session had many questions: why was Murphy was sticking with the March 7th date for unmasking instead of following the CDC’s recommendation for not masking in schools right now? How should school leaders approach instances of medically-fragile students and staff?  How should they shift policies on contact tracing and social distancing?

The answers were not forthcoming.

One superintendent noted in the chat, “Recommendations plus reality equal confusion and inconsistency.”

Here’s one example from the session:

One question batted around several times was whether a teacher who is immunocompromised could require students in the classroom to be masked.

State health commissioner Judy Persichilli answered first: “Anyone compromised or at risk should be masking … As far as an individual [class] requirement, I’d have to ask for help from the DOE.”

Acting state education commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan passed the question to her special assistant, Chris Huber. “It is really a local decision that needs to be made with the administration,” he said.

In another example of inconsistency, the CDC just changed its guidance regarding masking on school buses—it’s no longer recommended–but New Jersey will continue to require students to do so.

Superintendents and boards of education, you’re on your own.

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