TRENTON, NJ — New Jersey’s governor intends to lift the statewide COVID-19 mask requirement in schools early next month in a major step toward getting back to normal as the omicron surge drops off, his office said Monday.
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was scheduled to announce that the mandate would end March 7. It was not immediately clear whether individual school districts could continue to require masks.
New Jersey is one of a dozen states with mask mandates in schools, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. New Jersey’s rule has been in place since classes resumed in person in September 2020.
The state’s COVID-19 caseload is dropping after a spike around the holidays fueled by the omicron variant — a trend seen nationwide, too.
New cases per day across the U.S. have plunged by more than a half-million since mid-January, when they hit a peak of more than 800,000. Cases have been declining in 47 states in the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen 24% since mid-January to about 111,000.
Deaths are still running high at more than 2,400 per day on average, the most since last winter, reflecting a lag between when victims become infected and when they die.
Murphy faced pressure from Republicans and some parents who have held rallies at the statehouse in support of rescinding the requirement. But the governor has had support for the mask rule from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union.
In a statement, the union’s leadership urged Murphy to continue to analyze data and “do whatever is necessary to best protect the health and well-being of students and staff.”
It added that trends show COVID-19 heading in the right direction.
“It is appropriate for Gov. Murphy to allow local districts to continue to require masking in communities where that is prudent based on local conditions,” union leaders said in a statement.
It is unclear how many and how soon the state’s 600-plus school districts might end the wearing of masks.
In Paterson, the state’s third-biggest city, the school system will take time to consult with administration officials, principals, parents and staff, said district spokesperson Paul Brubaker.
Melissa Alfieri-Collins, a mother of two who disagrees with mask mandates in schools, saying she prefers “choice,” called the governor’s decision good news. But she raised concerns that districts might keep mask rules in place.
“For this reason, parents need an opt-out option for when and if districts do this,” she said.
Republicans claimed responsibility for pushing the governor to end the mandate. Murphy has said he wasn’t swayed by political pressure.
“Gov. Murphy will never admit that the pressure is getting to him, but it absolutely is,” Republican Senate Leader Steve Oroho said.
News that Murphy would end the mandate was first reported by The New York Times.