Gov. Phil Murphy’s mask mandate for students and teachers will end next month, Murphy said Monday, an announcement that elicited cries of “finally!” from Murphy’s loudest critics even as some of the governor’s supporters label the move cowardly.
Murphy characterized his lifting of the mandate as a return to “normalcy” as the number of COVID cases drops and vaccine approval for the nation’s youngest children is in the works. Some of Murphy’s Democratic colleagues in other states have either already lifted their own school mask mandates or plan to do so soon.
Linnie Greene, a Jersey City mom to an 18-month-old boy, called Murphy’s announcement a “capitulation to pressure.”
“It’s really foolish to take masking off the table when, as it stands, no child under 5 can be vaccinated,” said Greene, a Jersey City mom to an 18-month-old boy.
Frank Capone, the Middletown Board of Education president and vocal critic of Murphy’s COVID policies, disagrees.
“The only scientific truth to continue mask mandates in school is continued learning loss and mental and emotional damage to our students and staff,” he said in a statement. “The time for ending this draconian one-person mandate based on political science is today, not next month.”
The mask mandate will end on March 7. It’s a policy change Republicans have been calling for since last year and they want Murphy to implement it immediately.
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said Murphy continues to follow arbitrary metrics he hasn’t shared with the public. The month-long delay is to “save face,” he said, and it makes no sense to keep the policy in place as the number of COVID cases wanes.
“This should be done today. We’ve known, for months, that the evidence justifying masks in schools was weak at best. We’ve seen it around the world, comparing it to other states. There’s no demonstrable benefit to masking kids in schools,” he said.
Greene said Murphy is caving to the pressure of vocally anti-mask parents and politicians. She called it “a national sustained delusion that everything will be fine” even after students are allowed to remove their masks.
“This idea that it’s traumatizing children — I think there’s enough traumatizing things in the world. Seeing your loved ones get sick or die, feeling endangered over policies, that’s traumatizing. Putting a piece of fabric on your face is not,” said Greene.
Murphy defended the month-long delay, stressing that lifting the mandate too early would potentially lead to more outbreaks and school closures. During the 2021-2022 school year, 465 outbreaks were reported across 3,500 school buildings, he said.
“Every time you think you’ve got this thing figured out, it humbles you. But we’re confident that four weeks from now we will be able to be at that point,” he said.
Each district will still be able to enforce a mask policy, and any student, teacher or visitor who wants to wear a mask can do so.
The New Jersey Education Association said in a statement it is “cautiously optimistic” about moving away from masking due to the rapid decline in COVID transmission, but urged the governor to consider reimposing the mandate should cases rise again.
“As we have said from the beginning of the pandemic, it is critical to follow the data and listen to public health experts when implementing or removing COVID protocols,” the statement says.
Firas Taha, another Jersey City resident, is happy students will soon be able to keep their masks off during class. A physician and dad to two elementary school kids, he’s pro-vaccine and pro-mask, but believes masks are an undue burden on children.
“People say follow the science, but they’re stuck on 2020 science and 2020 decisions. It’s 2022. We have remarkable vaccines, two years of information, and vaccinated kids and adults are so much safer,” he said. “You put it all together and ask yourself why we’re still masking in schools.”
Featured photo: Gov. Murphy visits a pre-K classroom at Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park on September 16, 2021. (Courtesy of Josue Lora | NJ Governor’s Office)