Masks and facial coverings will no longer be mandated for students, staff, or visitors in schools and childcare centers effective March 7, 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy announced at a Feb. 7 media briefing.

“I must thank the overwhelming majority of students, parents, administrators, educators and support staffers who have worn their masks without problem or protest since our schools reopened for in-person learning,” Murphy said in a news release issued by the New Jersey Department of Health. Thankfully, we have reached a point where we feel confident that we can take another step toward normalcy for our kids.”

In making the move, Murphy cited “the continued drop in new cases and hospitalizations,” which indicate that COVID-19 infections are likely to continue to decline in coming weeks, as well as the continued growth of vaccinations among students.

Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, emphasized the importance of continuing to listen to health experts. “The governor’s action today comes against a backdrop of falling numbers of COVID cases and related hospitalizations,” he said. “We are hopeful that between now and March 7, cases will decline even further.”

Feinsod continued, “NJSBA believes it is important to follow the advice of public health experts in developing policies and practices to keep students and staff safe and healthy. Districts should continue their dialogue with their health officials. We also look forward to additional guidance from the state Department of Health on how best to protect the education community, while still continuing in-person instruction.”

It Will Be Up to Districts

School districts and childcare facilities can continue to implement universal masking policies after the mandate is lifted in March. Districts that do not impose universal masking should revise their COVID policies to utilize masking among other prevention strategies under certain circumstances, according to the Department of Health.

Schools will not be permitted to bar the use of facial coverings by individuals and will be expected to take disciplinary action in instances of bullying should they arise due to an individual’s choice to continue wearing a mask. Prior to the mandate being lifted, the Department of Health will release guidance to help school districts update their policies to align with the risks and unique needs of their setting and student population to ensure safe learning environments.

“The Department will develop guidance that incorporates all aspects of safety in schools while children are unmasked,” said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “We know that every parent wants to do what’s best for their children.”

Responding to questions at the Feb. 7 media briefing, the governor said his decision comes as a result of looking at numerous data points including vaccination rates, rates of infection and the likelihood that the Pfizer vaccine will soon be approved for children under age 5.

While he noted that New Jersey is among one of only six states to have had 90% of eligible residents receive a first dose of vaccine, he noted “the booster penetration continues to be way lower than it needs to be.” About 49% of state residents eligible for a booster shot have not received it, he said.

The governor emphasized that while the masking requirements will be lifted, the state is not allowing the banning of masks in schools. Districts can also continue to require the wearing of masks based on local conditions, he said.

On taking away the mandate, Murphy said, “This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing.”

At the briefing, the governor noted he will sign an executive order before the public health emergency expires Feb. 10, which will extend the public health emergency declared Jan. 11 by Executive Order No. 280 for 30 days. The public health emergency allows the state to continue vaccine distribution, vaccination or testing requirements in certain settings, the collection of COVID-19 data, implementation of any applicable recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent or limit the transmission of COVID-19, staffing and resource allocation and other critical components of the state’s COVID-19 response.

Under the Emergency Health Powers Act, the Public Health Emergency will expire after 30 days, unless renewed. State COVID-19 metrics will be reevaluated at the time of expiration to determine if an extension will be needed, the Department of Health stated.

Murphy’s move follows a decision last month by Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania to rescind his state’s school mask mandate. Delaware has also indicated it will end its mask mandate in March. Governors in other northeastern states, such as New York and Connecticut, have indicated their willingness to re-evaluate mask mandates, the New York Times reported.

Students in New Jersey have been required to wear masks since September 2020 when many schools reopened after a four-month lockdown. The mask mandate was expanded to include children age 2 and older in daycare and preschool in September 2021.