TRENTON — Students, educators and other school and child care staff will no longer have to wear masks starting the first week of March, Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Monday.

“Effective March 7, the statewide mask mandate in schools will be lifted. Balancing public health with getting back to some semblance of normalcy is not easy. But we can responsibly take this step due to declining COVID numbers and growth in vaccinations," Murphy said on Twitter, sharing a New York Times story that first announced the pending adjustment.

Citing the dropping number of COVID-19 confirmed cases and the continued receding omicron wave, Murphy said on a Sunday TV appearance for NBC's "Meet the Press" that it was time to start learning to live with COVID.

Attacked by Republicans

Republican state lawmakers said they felt the announcement was a victory for them in what they’ve billed as a “Give it back” campaign, blaming the governor for taking things away over two years during the global COVID pandemic that has claimed 5.7 million lives according to the World Health Organization on Friday.

Senate Republican Leader Steven Oroho, along with fellow Senators Kristin Corrado, Declan O’Scanlon and Michael Testa responded to the planned March rollback of the school mask mandate by saying it should be ended now, calling it a matter of parental rights.

Testa said that "If this was truly guided by ‘the science’, this arbitrary mandate would have been lifted 23 months ago, and the governor knows that."

Reaction from teachers

The news prompted some teachers to criticize the decision but the teachers union took a measured approach.

“We are encouraged by the data showing a rapid decline of COVID transmission in New Jersey. Because of that, we are cautiously optimistic that the current statewide school mask mandate can be safely relaxed in the near future, assuming current trends continue," according to a joint statement by New Jersey Education Association President Sean Spiller, Vice President Steve Beatty and Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson.

“We urge Gov. Murphy to continue to analyze the data and do whatever is necessary to best protect the health and well-being of students and staff. That includes the possibility of maintaining or reimposing the mask mandate for schools after March 7 if the data indicate that is the correct course," the statement from the NJEA leadership said.


CDC recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, for the 2021-22 school year.

“Consistent use of a face mask or respirator in indoor public settings was associated with lower odds of a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result (adjusted odds ratio = 0.44),” according to a Friday data update by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least 29,047 people in New Jersey have died of COVID as confirmed by state officials, with another 2,919 deaths likely due to COVID.

Murphy last reinstated a public health emergency on Jan. 11, keeping in place a number of executive orders and directives, including the school mask mandate.

At the time, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID was above 6,000, including more than 900 in intensive care units.

As of Monday, there were just over 1,900 patients hospitalized who had tested positive, including 360 of them in ICUs.

Some say it's too soon

Reaction to the pending rollback of the mask mandate was polarizeded on social media, as some said it was premature while others questioned why the extra month of the regulation was necessary.

Vaccination rates among children

There were 72,330 children between the ages of 5 and 11 statewide vaccinated against COVID, as of Monday.

Another 99,837 children between the ages of 12 and 15 also had received Pfizer shots (the only COVID vaccine approved for those younger than 18) and just 37,109 teenagers ages 16 or 17.

There still is no COVID vaccination authorized for children younger than 5, as of February.

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