TRENTON, N.J. - Staff members and students from kindergarten to 12th grade will be required to wear masks in New Jersey schools, regadless of their vaccination status, when the new year begins in a few weeks, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday as COVID-19 cases rise in the state.
During Friday's announcement, Murphy made it clear that New Jersey schools would still be reopening fully, as planned, for in-person instruction. He also cited the recent spread of the delta variant, inability to vaccinate students under 12, and vaccination rates among older students and their families as reasons for the mask mandate in schools.
"This is not an announcement that gives any of us, or me, pleasure," Murphy said Friday. "But as the school year approaches, and with the numbers rapidly increasing, it is the one that we need to make right now."
On Friday, New Jersey reported more than 1,200 new cases and seven new confirmed deaths. The governor says the state will continue to closely monitor data and life the mandate "when we can do it 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," he added.
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 pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, precludes use of a face covering;
- When the individual is under two years of age;
- When an individual 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 the individual 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.
The decision to require masks is an about-face from just a few weeks ago when Murphy said it would take a "deterioration" of COVID-19 data to require masks.
The state's figures, like many across the country, have been trending up in recent weeks. The seven-day rolling average of new cases climbed over the past two weeks from 512 on July 20 to 1,104 on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The surging figures are part of a nationwide struggle with the contagious delta variant, which has been leading — along with vaccination holdouts — to higher hospitalization rates across the country.
- Gov. Murphy announces vaccine mandate for healthcare facilities, high-risk congregate settings
- Experts say kids are catching Delta variant at summer camps and day cares
- As delta variant surges, Fauci warns more 'pain and suffering' ahead
- Delta seems more dangerous than other COVID-19 variants, contagious as chicken pox, reports say
Unlike other places in the country, though, New Jersey's vaccination rate is among the highest in the nation. Nationwide, the percentage of adults fully vaccinated against COVID-19 stands at nearly 61%. In New Jersey, the rate is 71%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New Jersey was an early hotspot in March 2020, and the state's positive cases and hospitalizations haven't reached the high levels they did early on in the outbreak, but they're higher than they were a few months ago as vaccinations became more widely available.
The first-term governor's decision comes amid some pushback against masks in schools, particularly among some Republicans and parents who worry about the effects masks could have on their children's psychological and physical health.
Earlier this week, Murphy argued back with protesters skeptical about vaccinations at a public event. "You’ve lost your minds," Murphy said, "You are the ultimate knuckleheads."