Credit: (Jill Carlson via Flickr)
If Gov. Phil Murphy’s recommendations on masks come into force, it is likely to become a much rarer species in New Jersey schools.

When Gov. Phil Murphy announced earlier this month that the state’s mask mandate would expire in public schools on March 7, the news was met with a series of reactions – from those who said it could not happen soon enough to those who were worried that he is moving too fast.

On Wednesday, two weeks after the announcement, Murphy tried to address all of these concerns by publishing new details and recommendations for counties moving forward, returning to what he repeatedly said was “normal.”

Murphy gave counties a 19-page guide to deciding on masks and other precautions, including a local dashboard across state counties and other health indicators. The same data were used by districts to determine full-time or distance learning last year.

Recommendations, not rules

But after two years of orders and mandates, Murphy has made it clear that these are just recommendations, without making any new demands on districts or families, many of whom are already looking to move on.

It seems Murphy is also moving on, and the release of the instructions on the masks will take place the same day he said he would stop his regular media briefings on COVID-19.

“With only 11 days left in our schools since the abolition of the mandate to disguise the premises, we see that the rate of intra-school transmission is now declining to where they were before the micron,” Murphy said. “So looking forward to Monday, March 7, we believe we will be in a good position for a less uniform approach.”

That’s not to say voices of caution weren’t voiced, including Murphy’s Commissioner for Health Judith Persicili.

Provided in the latest guide there were new recommendations on when masks and other precautions should be in place, especially in the event of an outbreak. The instructions say districts should consider “temporarily switching to universal camouflage” in the event of an outbreak, and students returning from quarantine or isolation are also encouraged to be in masks or stay at home.

“Although masks will not be required by the state, they remain an important part of the multi-layered approach against COVID-19 and are recommended under certain circumstances,” Persicili said during a briefing on Wednesday.

“We encourage school districts and children’s centers to consult with local health departments and school nurses to determine if a universal camouflage policy is appropriate for their schools and children’s centers.”

Kids can choose masks

Murphy said students who want to continue wearing masks indoors have every right to do so, and that schools have a duty to protect them from ridicule and bullying if necessary. And he said that the ultimate protection is vaccination.

“We still need to vaccinate and encourage more people,” Murphy said. “But if we could do it responsibly to be able to keep our precious children in schools without these (masks), it’s obviously hope as long as we can do it safely and responsibly.”

Under federal regulations, the mask mandate will remain in effect for all school bus passengers, regardless of vaccination status. The only exception is for children under the age of two and those who cannot safely wear the mask.

It is too early to assess the reaction of school leaders to the latest recommendations, as they were delivered only on Wednesday afternoon. The administration is expected to provide more information at a webinar with executives on Friday.

“There’s a lot to sift through,” said Sean DeMarco, head of schools at Tenafley County in Bergen, who also met separately with Murphy’s aides. “Obviously they expect there will be a lot of questions to be answered.”

Because many principals have decided to make masks optional for their schools, DeMarco said Tenafly schools also plan to make masks optional when the state’s mandate expires on March 7. She also said her schools have long taken many of the precautions outlined.

Execution of protocols

“It was about having protocols and keeping them loyal,” she said. “We’re very used to keeping the windows open and having a little more space in our classrooms.”

One overt superintendent, who was critical of the administration’s response to the pandemic, said many schools in his Monmouth county had already made their decisions.

The latest guide “was written from a very specific perspective that ignores the reality of where most schools have been over the past few weeks,” said Charles Sampson, head of the Freehold Regional High School District.

“Most schools in this area have already moved to a more routine regime that does not include most of these recommendations, and as a result have not seen any problems with COVID.”

However, another superintendent applauded the administration for finally linking camouflage to certain health measures and risks, including its own CALI (COVID-19 Activity-Level Index) dashboard.

“What is contained here, I would like to have it last summer,” said Robert Zywicki, head of the Mount Olive School. “It’s long overdue and a step in the right direction.”

There are some new signs that families may also be moving on. A a recent survey of New Jersey parents the JerseyCAN advocacy group asked families about their main concerns when it came to the pandemic, and the answers were constantly focused on educational and academic questions.

The first on the list was a shortage of teachers and staff (56% said it was a serious / moderate problem), followed by a need for more teaching time (53%) and more academic support, such as tutoring (52%).

“The first three things (in the survey) were academic topics,” said Janellen Duffy, a senior adviser to JerseyCAN, who conducted an online survey of about 400 public school parents in mid-January. “We asked them what they were worried about, and it really wasn’t a mask.”

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