By John Mooney & Katie Crist at NJ Spotlight News

When Gov. Phil Murphy announced earlier this month that the state’s mask mandate would end for public schools on March 7, the news was met by a range of reactions — from those who said it couldn’t happen soon enough to those who worried he was moving too quickly.

On Wednesday, two weeks after that announcement, Murphy tried to address all those concerns with the release of new details and guidelines for districts moving forward while returning to what he repeatedly said was “normalcy.”

Murphy gave districts a 19-page guide for making decisions about masks and other precautions, including the state’s county-by-county dashboard of local transmission and other health indicators. It was the same data used by districts to determine in-person or remote instruction last year.

Recommendations, not rules

But after two years of executive orders and mandates, Murphy made clear these were only recommendations, imposing no new requirements for districts or families, many of which were already looking to move on.

It appears Murphy is moving on as well, with the release of the mask guidance coming the same day he said he would stop his own regular COVID-19 media briefings.

“As we are just 11 days from the lifting of the indoor masking mandate in our schools, we see the rates of in-school transmission now down to where they were pre-omicron,” Murphy said. “So, looking forward to Monday, March 7th, we feel we will be a good position for a less uniform approach.”

That’s not to say the cautionary voices weren’t being raised, including Murphy’s own health commissioner, Judith Persichilli.

Provided in the latest guidance were new recommendations on when masks and other precautions should be in place, especially in the case of an outbreak. The guidance said districts should consider a “temporary transition to universal masking” in the case of outbreaks, and students returning from quarantine or isolation were also recommended to be masked or to stay home.

“While masks will not be required by the state, they remain an important part of a layered approach against COVID-19 and are recommended in certain circumstances,” Persichilli said during Wednesday’s briefing.

“We encourage school districts and child care centers to consult with their local health departments and school nurses in determining whether a universal masking policy is appropriate for their schools and child care centers.”

Kids can opt for masks

Murphy said students who wish to still wear masks indoors have every right to do so, and that schools have a responsibility to protect them from ridicule and bullying if necessary. And he said the ultimate protection is to get vaccinated.

“We still need to get more people vaccinated and boosted,” said Murphy. “But if we could do it responsibly to be able to have our precious kids in schools without these (masks) on, obviously, that is the hope as long as we can do it safely and responsibly.”

Due to federal regulations, the mask mandate will remain in place for all passengers on school buses, regardless of vaccination status. Until lifted, the only exception is for children under the age of two, and those who cannot safely wear a mask.

It’s too early gauge the reactions of school leaders to the latest guidelines since they were only delivered midafternoon Wednesday. The administration is expected to provide more information in a webinar with superintendents on Friday.

“There’s a lot to sift through,” said Shauna DeMarco, superintendent of Tenafly schools in Bergen County who has also met separately with Murphy’s aides. “It is evident that that they anticipate there would be a lot of questions to be answered.”

With many superintendents choosing to make masks optional for their schools, DeMarco said Tenafly schools also plan to make masks optional when the state’s mandate ends on March 7. She also said her schools had long ago taken many of the precautions outlined.

Honoring the protocols

“It was a matter of having the protocols in place and staying true to them,” she said. “We’ve become very accustomed to keeping windows open and having a little more space in our classrooms.”

One outspoken superintendent who has been critical of the administration’s pandemic response said many schools in his Monmouth County district had already made their decisions.

The latest guidance “was written from a very specific perspective that ignores the reality of where most schools have been for the past several weeks,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of Freehold Regional High Schools District.

“Most schools in this area have already transitioned toward a more normal routine that does not include most of these recommendations and have not seen any COVID-related issues as a result.”

Still, another superintendent applauded the administration for finally linking masking to specific health measures and risks, including the state’s own CALI (COVID-19 Activity-Level Index) dashboard.

“What’s contained in here, I wish we had it last summer,” said Robert Zywicki, superintendent of Mount Olive Schools. “It’s long overdue and a step in the right direction.”

There is some new indication that families may be moving on as well. A recent survey of New Jersey parents by the advocacy group JerseyCAN asked families about their main concerns when it came to the pandemic, and answers were consistently focused on educational and academic ones….

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