This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.
New Jersey’s controversial school-mask mandate could soon become history — with high schools likely to ease the ban first — assuming more parents have their children vaccinated against COVID-19.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that every student and educator immunized brings the state closer to lifting the mask requirement he put in place last summer, before younger children were eligible to receive the vaccine. That changed last week when the federal government approved the use of Pfizer shots in kids ages 5 to 11.
“I would hope this is the beginning of a process — I can’t tell you exactly when — but that we will be able to get to that place [of not requiring masks in schools] sooner than later,” Murphy said at Monday’s pandemic media briefing. Asked by a reporter if he was forcing parents’ hands with the announcement, he said, “I don’t view that as strong-arming. I view that as factual.”
The school-mask mandate — which applies to everyone age 5 and older — became a flashpoint for some parents, who claimed their children were being “muzzled” and who berated local education officials over the state order. It also outraged Republican lawmakers, and several held a hearing last summer at which experts testified about the potential harm of face coverings. Nearly all public health officials endorse masks as a safe and effective way to control viral spread.
Current mandate set to expire in January
The current school-mask mandate expires Jan. 11, Murphy said Monday, suggesting the state was unlikely to extend the requirement if current infection and vaccination trends continue. But it could be lifted sooner in upper grades, he said, with a phased-in policy that would enable high school students — more of whom are now vaccinated against COVID-19 — to remove their face coverings first, followed by those in middle school and elementary grades. School-based outbreaks of the disease continue to be relatively rare, Murphy said, with 148 reported since September and only 11 in the past week.
Murphy’s return to the briefing table flanked by state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, State Police Superintendent Pat Callahan and others — an event that has occurred at least once a week since March 2020 — was his first since last week’s near-upset election. Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly defeated Republican gubernatorial challenger Jack Ciattarelli to win a second term by less than 66,000 votes, according to Associated Press results as of Monday, in a race Ciattarelli has yet to concede.
Murphy told reporters he would now hold media briefings just once a week, on Mondays, suggesting the pace of the pandemic response no longer required multiple in-person updates in the week. The events — which are livestreamed on the governor’s social media channels and tracked closely by the media — were once held daily but had since been reduced to twice a week.
With vaccines first available last Wednesday for 5- to 11-year-old children in New Jersey, Persichilli said Monday that more than 9,100 youngsters have had their initial vaccination, about 1.2% of the 760,000 kids in this age group. She urged parents to use the drop-down tab for “Pfizer-BioNTech age 5+” on the state’s vaccine search tool to find a location that is providing the pediatric shots which, like the adult version, require two doses three weeks apart.
“Vaccinating this population can protect other family members and those who can’t get vaccinated,” Persichilli said. “It can help keep children healthy, which will allow them to stay in school, participate in sports and other activities.”
‘We’d like to get them all vaccinated’
Persichilli also urged parents of 12- to 17-year-old kids to immunize their children. More than two-thirds of these 650,000 teens and tweens have been vaccinated since federal approval was given for this age group in May, but she said another 260,000 have yet to get a shot. “We’d like to get all of them vaccinated,” she said.
Nearly 6.1 million New Jerseyans have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data. The disease has been diagnosed in some 1.2 million residents since March 2020, including more than 28,000 who have died. Daily case counts and hospitalization numbers have been slowly trending down this fall, although the rate of transmission, a critical measure of how effectively the virus is spreading, has ticked up in recent days.
While children appear less vulnerable to COVID-19 than adults, some 140,000 minors in New Jersey have been diagnosed with the disease — about 13.5% of the total case count; nearly 1,600 have been hospitalized and eight have died. Youngsters can also develop multi-system inflammatory syndrome, or MISC-C, a rare but serious reaction that Persichilli said has been identified in 136 kids in New Jersey, one more than had been reported last week.
“We cannot predict which child may develop severe disease, so it is important that we protect every child,” Persichilli said. And, she noted, “The more individuals we get vaccinated, the more the virus has no place to go.”