All New Jersey school and state employees must be fully vaccinated by October

Students settle in at their desks

Students settle in at their desks for their first day of in-person learning in more than a year at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated: 5:45 p.m.

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that all school personnel — from preschool to high school — must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18, or be subjected to weekly testing. The same will go for all state employees, as well as faculty and staff at state colleges and universities.

The executive order is similar to one announced earlier this month for state employees at health care and correctional facilities. It also comes just after the FDA gave full approval for Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine and New York City officials announced a similar mandate in schools.

But unlike the Big Apple, New Jersey teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated will be subject to weekly testing for the virus. New York City’s mandate does not have an alternative testing option.

Murphy’s executive order applies to both full- and part-time staff at all public, private, and parochial schools, as well as substitute teachers and contract workers.

“As we move forward over the coming weeks to implement this order, we expect that district leaders will work collaboratively and directly with local union leadership on smoothing out operational or other logistical aspects,” Murphy said, “especially, if there’s a need for larger scale testing of workers over the next couple of months.”

The governor also said his order was not influenced by the FDA’s decision. But he hopes more people will get vaccinated, citing that some residents expressed hesitation to ambassadors from the state Health Department about the vaccines being authorized only for emergency use, as opposed to full approval.

“There’s a certain part of the population that had been holding off,” he said. “We hope that bumps up folks stepping up and getting vaccinated.”

Pfizer’s vaccine remains approved for emergency use for ages 12 to 15. It remains the only vaccine approved for any use for teens. Vaccines by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson remain under emergency use authorization.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association, has been supportive of vaccination for all who are eligible. The union ran ads last spring featuring members talking about the importance of vaccination, according to Steve Baker, NJEA’s communications director.

Ahead of the governor’s announcement, Baker called a mandate for school employees similar to the one for health care workers “appropriate and responsible.”

“Vaccination is the best tool we have to better protect our schools and communities and we have tried hard throughout this pandemic to ensure that our students, staff and schools are as safe as possible,” he said.

This is Murphy’s latest move to make sure schools open on time for in-person learning with no virtual learning options available, except under special circumstances. He previously instituted a mask mandate for school buildings, citing the highly transmissible delta variant and the fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines.

Despite a “vocal minority” and a lawsuit fighting the mask mandate, Murphy’s decision is “decidedly” popular, according to the latest Monmouth University poll. Out of 810 registered voters polled, 67% approve of the mask mandate. But poll director Patrick Murray said parents have a different feeling when it comes to vaccine mandates for children.

“There may be greater pushback from parents if a vaccine mandate was instituted for school children,” Murray said.

Murphy said that as groups become eligible to get the vaccine, his administration is “begging” for them to get vaccinated. He added that he is “comfortable” with the decision to mandate vaccination or weekly testing for school personnel.

“We think that plus masking is the right mix right now,” Murphy said.

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