Almost all students will have to wear masks in school — now mandatory
New Jersey will now require virtually all students to wear face coverings when they return to public schools this fall, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.
The state had already recommended face coverings at all times in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, but until Monday's announcement only required them in crowded places such as hallways.
"We know that face coverings work, and we will now ensure that everyone in a school building would wear one," Murphy said at his mid-day coronavirus update to media and residents.
Guidance from the state Department of Education will make exceptions for students with health concerns that could be exacerbated by face masks, including those with disabilities. The state also expects to issue safety checklists and FAQs that both parents and district officials can review.
But superintendents in at least some New Jersey schools bristled at the news of a new checklist, after spending months trying to prepare for a reopening under existing guidance.
"Schools are in an impossible position & a checklist AFTER our plans are complete is unfathomable," Freehold Regional School District Superintendent Charles Sampson wrote on Twitter.
"I don’t even have words," Marlboro schools Superintendent Eric Hibbs wrote on his own Twitter account. "I’m waiting for the together part as well. School districts must have plans developed, discussed, and approved. I now have to develop yet another plan. We need guidance and leadership."
Murphy didn't explicitly address early in his news conference what guidance would be given about mealtimes, or any activities such as athletics where mask-wearing could be more difficult. More broadly, the state requires masks in public places such as restaurants, but allows them to be taken off for eating in outdoor dining settings.
Despite objections from the state's largest teacher's union, Murphy has stood by his assertion schools should open for at least some in-person instruction this fall, tasking districts with coming up with plans that allow for social distancing and other safety precautions.
Most districts are planning hybrid learning, with a mix of in-person and remote learning. Just a few, like Lakewood, are expecting to hold in-person classes five days a week for all students.
Murphy's announcement comes as the state continues to see hospitalizations, daily deaths and spot positivity rates related to the novel coronavirus trend downward, all at a fraction of their levels a few months ago.
But New Jersey has seen the rate of transmission — an estimated average for how many people each positive person infects — climb. The RT is now at 1.48, after spending weeks lingering around the 1.0 mark, considered a key indicator of problematic spread. At the height of New Jersey's coronavirus spread, it was well over 5.0, and has been as little as .7.