N.J. coronavirus update: State will not require students to wear masks this fall

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)

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New Jersey students will not have to wear masks when they return to the classroom this fall, unless required by their district — and so long as there are no serious changes to the COVID-19 situation come September, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

“Let me be perfectly clear as well that any student or educator or staff member who feels more comfortable wearing a mask will be allowed to without fear of bullying or intimidation,” said Murphy during his biweekly coronavirus briefing.

Even as masking requirements were lifted in the state recently, Murphy said students would have to keep them when on school property. The decision got some pushback from parents and administrators from places like Ocean County as students entered graduation season.

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But with 4.9 million New Jerseyans fully vaccinated, including 4.7 million adults, the number of coronavirus cases in the Garden State has plummeted.

“Remember, the virus dictates the terms here, not us. Again, this is our best guess,” said Murphy. “ think it’s an educated guess and it’s one that will stay in place absent — please, God — either return for the worst of the virus or something dramatic coming from the CDC.”

Students will still have to mask up when riding on school buses, regardless of vaccination status, per the most current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The masking announcement comes as the state Departments of Education and Health released health and safety recommendations for the upcoming school year so schools can open for in-person instruction.

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According to state officials, the key for in-person instruction this fall will be layering safety measures, such as keeping some form of physical distance and having procedures in place when any student or staff show COVID-19 symptoms.

Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said the absence of one of these layers should not stop schools from fully reopening. Still, all districts should be prepared to offer virtual learning should there be a localized coronavirus outbreak in a school.

Allen-McMillan said districts should actively promote the vaccine to all eligible students and staff.

Physical distancing and avoiding group seating is recommended, especially for younger students who are not fully vaccinated, but only to the extent possible. Self-service in cafeterias is discouraged and schools should stagger lunch times, said Allen-McMillan.

Should a student or staff member show virus symptoms, they should be tested for COVID-19, regardless of their vaccination status.

If a local health department recommends a school close for more than three consecutive days, remote learning can count to the district’s 180-day learning requirement.

“We reserve the right depending on what the virus does or what the CDC pronounces to revisit some of this,” said Murphy. “But we wanted to make sure we gave folks as long a runway as possible.”

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