At a Feb. 23 media briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy said he still plans to let the mask mandate in New Jersey schools end March 7 as the state transitions from a pandemic stance to one that treats COVID-19 as an endemic disease.
Statistics show that the threat of COVID-19 is waning, with the governor noting that hospitalizations have gone down more than 20% in the past week and the number of patients in intensive care units and on ventilators is at a three-month low. Moreover, the positivity rate recently stood at 3% versus 40% at the peak of the pandemic.
Murphy also noted that the rate of in-school transmission is back to where it was before the omicron variant erupted.
“We’re looking forward to Monday, March 7,” Murphy said. “We feel we will be in a good position for a less uniform approach” in terms of masking at schools.
Murphy noted that decisions will be made at the district level, and students and staff members can continue wearing masks if they choose – and they should not be singled out or bullied.
Judith M. Persichilli, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, also spoke at the media briefing, where she referenced new guidance issued by the NJDOH.
“We encourage school districts and childcare centers to consult with their local health department and school nurses to determine if a universal masking policy is appropriate for their school or childcare center,” she said.
According to the updated guidance, “As of March 7, 2022, the state mandate requiring in school universal masking will be expired, and individual school districts and school boards will be able to make the determination as to whether universal masking is appropriate for their schools. In making this decision, consultation with the (local health department) and school district medical personnel is recommended. Many factors may go into this decision, including, but not limited to schools’ ability to maintain physical distancing, ability to regularly screen students (including screening testing), vaccination rates of students and staff, ability to perform effective contact tracing of cases, ability to ensure appropriate exclusion of students and staff with COVID-19 or who have been exposed, and ability to maintain adequate ventilation.”
The guidance continues, “In addition to school district policies, individuals (including parents/guardians) need to make masking decisions based on their specific situation (e.g., if they or their family members are immunocompromised or at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19).”
Schools should require mask wearing in certain circumstances, such as when there is a period of elevated community transmission, during an active outbreak, after returning from isolation or quarantine on days six to 10, when students or staff become ill with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and for students participating in test-to-stay programs, according to the guidance.
The guidance also indicates other instances when schools may want to consider requiring masks. It adds, “Masks must be worn by all passengers on buses, including school buses, regardless of vaccination status per CDC’s Federal Order and the associated FAQ. Until lifted, the only exception is for children under the age of two, and those who cannot safely wear a mask.”
At the media briefing, Persichilli emphasized that masks “remain part of a layered approach against COVID-19.”
Murphy also signaled his intent to wind down the weekly COVID-19 briefings he’s been holding with the media since the beginning of the pandemic, noting that the state would continue to broadcast information online and via other channels.