Politico

New Jersey will require all students to wear masks while in school


New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is continuing to assert that schools will reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, announcing Monday that all students will be required to wear masks in school buildings.

Murphy said the state Department of Education has updated its reopening guidance document to require face coverings “for all students at all times while inside a school building regardless of social distancing,” unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health. The updated guidance also includes exceptions for students with disabilities.

This is a change from the previous guidance that “strongly encouraged” masks and only required students to wear them when social distancing cannot be maintained in places like crowded hallways. The guidance has always required masks for teachers, staff and school visitors.

“We know that face coverings work and we will now ensure that everyone in a school building will wear one,” Murphy said during his briefing in Trenton.

The updates tighten the previous recommendations, but offer little by way of enforcement.

According to the changes, students and staff should be given “face covering breaks” throughout the day in places where social distancing can be maintained, such as outside or in classrooms with windows open. Masks will also be required on buses but the DOE acknowledges “enforcing the use of face coverings may be impractical for young children or individuals with disabilities.”

School leaders and some advocates had criticized the initial 104-page guidance document for not requiring masks or providing details including who will be responsible for supplying and paying for face coverings, which some estimated could cost districts thousands.

The updates clarify that families and guardians will be tasked with supplying masks for students but that districts should “strive to provide” extra disposable masks and should give masks to students who can’t afford them.

These changes come as coronavirus cases in the state have begun to tick upward again.

The state on Monday reported 264 new positive Covid-19 test results, pushing the statewide cumulative total since March 4 to 182,614. Meantime, the rate of transmission, a measure of how many people will likely be infected by each new patient, stands at 1.48, which means the virus is spreading faster than it’s being contained.

Murphy announced the mask requirement shortly after scaling back indoor gathering limits to 25 people — down from 100 people — with exceptions for weddings, funerals and religious and political events.

The governor acknowledged that “if you look at our numbers from five weeks ago,” when the original school reopening guidance was released, “they [were] a lot better than they are today,” and noted “a school is not immune to the environment around it.”

Still, despite calls from the state’s largest teachers union to go remote-only in the fall, the Murphy administration is pressing forward with reopening for in-person instruction.

In an attempt to assuage the concerns of some school leaders and parents about returning to buildings, Murphy said the state DOE will be sharing its checklist of items that county offices of education will use to ensure that district plans meet the state’s guidelines.

The department, he said, is also finalizing a Frequently Asked Questions document which outlines answers to some of the “thornier questions that schools have been asking about their reopening plans.”

“We have much to think about over the coming weeks,” Murphy said.

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