It’s official: Mask up to start the new school year.

After weeks of increasing virus case counts, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order on Aug. 6 requiring all students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear face masks in school buildings.

“This guidance is in line with the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod. “Against the backdrop of the rapid spread of the Delta variant, masks will play an important role in making possible what should be our top priority: safely returning children and staff to the classroom.”

Health experts supported the governor’s order. In recent weeks, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidance calling for students to wear masks due to the increasing prevalence of the Delta COVID-19 variant, the ineligibility of those under 12 for vaccination, and a rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases.

Executive Order 251, requiring masks with exceptions for students with physical or emotional health concerns, went into effect on Aug. 9.

“We understand that students learn best in a classroom setting and remain committed to having our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction this fall,” Murphy said Friday. “While this announcement gives us no pleasure, I know that by taking this precaution we can keep our schools open while also keeping our children safe. We will continue to closely monitor the science and data and will lift this mandate when we can do so safely. I urge those who are eligible for vaccination but have yet to be vaccinated to act and help move our state in the right direction.”

Dr. Jeanne Craft, president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke at the governor’s Aug. 6 press conference in support of the mask mandate.  “Here in New Jersey we have seen a concerning rise in viral spread,” said Craft. “A hopeful spring has become a worrisome summer. The conditions have changed, the risk is higher, especially for children. We need to move forward with an abundance of caution. We have come so far, but we need to continue to rely on scientific evidence and expert advice to keep children, teachers, school staff and communities as safe as possible.”

While masks will be broadly required in school buildings for the coming school year, exceptions will remain unchanged from the 2020-2021 school year, and include:

  • When doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, such as when the individual is exposed to extreme heat indoors;
  • When the individual has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance;
  • When a student’s documented medical condition or disability, as reflected in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Educational Plan, precludes use of a face covering;
  • When a child is under two (2) years of age;
  • When a student is engaged in an activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask, such as eating and drinking or playing an instrument that would be obstructed by the face covering;
  • When a student is engaged in high-intensity aerobic or anerobic activity;
  • When a student is participating in high-intensity physical activities during a physical education class in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of six feet from all other individuals; or
  • When wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.

“Throughout the pandemic, our goal has always been the safe return to in-person learning, where children thrive academically and socially,” said Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of education. “Today’s announcement achieves that goal – while also following the direction from our state’s and nation’s health specialists to ensure the safety of educators and students along with their families.”