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NJ Parents Have Mixed Feelings as State Plans to Lift School Mask Mandate

by Tennyson Donyéa, P. Kenneth Burns, WHYY

This story is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. Link to story:

New Jersey’s statewide school mask mandate will end on March 7, Gov. Phil Murphy announced last Monday, marking the end of a controversial pandemic restriction.

“Early March traditionally means the weather starts to warm up at least a bit, which will give schools a little bit more flexibility to increase ventilation, be more creative with that, and further decrease the risk of COVID spread,” Murphy said at his weekly coronavirus briefing.

Murphy said it was a difficult decision.

“Balancing public health with the need to get back to some semblance of normalcy is not easy. If we are to err, I would much rather be it on the side of protecting public health,” Murphy said.

School districts would still be able to implement universal mask mandates in response to future outbreaks, said state Health Commissioner Dr. Judy Persichelli.

​​Murphy says he announced the end of the mandate one month early to give students, educators, and parents enough time to prepare.

Some parents cautiously welcomed the news, which applies to both K-12 and child care centers, while others were still concerned that kids will be put at risk.

Elizabeth Meyer, of Somerset County, has mixed emotions. She was relieved when Murphy reinstated the mandate for the 2021-2022 school year. Now, her two daughters, ages nine and 11, are both vaccinated.

“I’m not relieved, but I’m not upset,” Meyer said. “On the flip side, I’m not celebrating. I’m optimistic, but with a great deal of caution.”

She said the family has been extra cautious during the pandemic because of the medication she takes for a chronic condition that compromises her immune system. Her family will continue wearing masks, she said, regardless of what her daughters’ school district decides, though her daughters were concerned when the family heard about the governor’s announcement.

“They had more questions,” Meyer said. “Will I get made fun of if I still wear a mask? Will my teacher be wearing a mask? Will I be the only one with a mask on?”

Murphy said students who wish to continue wearing a mask will be allowed to and provisions will be put in place to prevent students from being “bullied” or “demeaned” for taking precautions during in-person learning.

Zach Wright, of Collingswood, is a former teacher and has two sons in elementary school who are vaccinated as well. He said the change makes him feel confused.

“The part of me that’s, like, really eager to jump to return to normalcy also needs to remember that that isn’t necessarily good for everybody,” he said. “I don’t know what to feel or believe any more.”

Wright said that for his youngest son in kindergarten, the pandemic has been around for half of his life.

“That’s the reality he knows,” he said. “We’ve gone through the quarantine, we’ve gone through testing, we’ve gone through positive results.”

Before he forms an opinion, Wright wants to hear from his wife, a critical care nurse.

“I want her perspective,” he said, “someone who’s in medicine and knows medicine to give me that perspective that’s going to give me more of an actual idea.”

Lawsuit against mandate expected to continue: The current mandate requiring masks for all students, teachers, staff, and school visitors has been in place since last fall, when most students returned to in-person classes for the 2021-2022 school year. The mandate has drawn a backlash from many Republicans, as well as some parents. A group of parents sued to overturn it last year, but a federal judge upheld the mandate in December, ruling against their argument that masking violated childrens’ First Amendment rights.

Attorney Bruce Afran, who represents the parents group, Free NJ Kids, said the lawsuit seeking to overturn the governor’s mandate will continue.

“We want a ruling on whether this abuses his powers,” he said, adding that Murphy is “facing reality that there’s no longer any public tolerance for these arbitrary orders.”

Despite the mandate affecting both adults and children, Afran has stipulated that mask mandates only burden children because they are “the least likely people to ever get sick.” Children have been hospitalized in record numbers in the recent surge in cases driven by the omicron variant.

Afran said he plans to amend the suit, effectively returning to their original attempt to block any school district from implementing a mask mandate in the future.

“We certainly don’t want every school district in New Jersey to be able to create its own ad hoc orders mandating masking of children,” he said.

Many Republicans and some Democrats are hailing Murphy’s move to end the requirement as good news for the Garden State and its fight against the coronavirus.

New Jersey Senate Republicans called Murphy’s announcement a “first victory” in an initiative launched Thursday called #GiveItBack, a social media campaign and petition designed to put pressure on the Murphy administration to lift coronavirus restrictions and to relinquish emergency powers granted during the pandemic.

“Gov. Murphy is never going to admit that the pressure is getting to him, but it absolutely is,” Senate minority leader Sen. Steve Oroho (R-24) said in a statement Monday. “That’s why he rushed to make this announcement weeks before he actually plans on lifting the school mask mandate.”

Instead of waiting another month, Sen. Kristin Corrado called on Murphy to end the mandate now.

“Parents want their rights to make masking decisions for their kids restored today, not next month,” Corrado said. “There’s no excuse to wait any longer.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. tweeted, “No step may be more important to normalize life.”

“We have long rightly balanced learning with safety,” he said. “But it is time to restore cherished daily life for our students.”

Murphy’s announcement comes after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ended the state’s school mask requirements as of January, leaving it up to individual districts to set their own pandemic-related restrictions.

The governor also announced his emergency powers have been extended for another month.