The governors of New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware on Monday said they would lift school mask mandates in the coming weeks, aiming for a return to “normalcy” as a surge in Covid-19 infections fueled by the Omicron variant abates in their states.
The change signals a desire by at least some Democratic state governors, including New Jersey’s Phil Murphy and Delaware’s John Carney, to take their states off emergency footing and shift toward policies that treat the virus as part of normal life.
By no longer requiring students, teachers and administrators to wear masks in schools, the governors are also seeking to blunt one of the most divisive issues of the pandemic. Republican leaders in some states, including Florida and Texas, have banned mask mandates in schools, while Democrats have generally encouraged the policy to help stall new infections.
In New Jersey, where the number of new cases have decreased over the past two weeks, Murphy announced the state would lift its school mask mandate on March 7.
“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 wrote on Twitter.
Murphy said later in a press conference that individual school districts and private childcare providers would still be allowed to maintain and enforce mask mandates.
“Any student, educator, or staff member or visitor who chooses to continue masking up while indoors may freely do so… We will not tolerate anyone being put down by exercising their choice to mask up.”
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said his state would lift its mask mandate on Feb. 28, and Delaware’s Carney announced the state’s school mask mandate would end on March 31.
“We’re in a much better place than we were several weeks ago,” Carney wrote on Twitter, but added: “The virus still poses a risk of serious illness, particularly among those who are not up to date on their vaccinations.”
President Joe Biden met with Murphy and other U.S. governors last week at the White House, where the state leaders expressed a desire to return to a sense of normalcy nearly two years after the pandemic forced many schools to switch to online learning and later to institute mask policies.
While U.S. coronavirus deaths are still on the rise – surpassing 900,000 on Friday – the daily number of lives lost has begun to level off, according to data collected by Reuters. During each surge in the pandemic, the rise in the death toll trails the increase in new cases.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and Baltimore’s former health commissioner, said lifting mask mandates was the right step.
It “marks a needed shift from government-imposed requirement to individual decision. It helps to preserve public health authority for when it’s needed again,” she wrote on Twitter.
The prospect of lifting the mask mandate prompted some New Jersey parents to demand transparency by decision makers, such as school board members.
“If we don’t follow state guidance on lifting mask mandate, we need to know what metrics are being used to make that determination and what metrics we need to achieve in order to drop the mask mandate,” Cheryl Barkin, whose sons attend middle school and high school in New Jersey’s South Orange-Maplewood School District, wrote in an email to her school board representative.
As masking policies shift, many U.S. school districts have returned to in-person learning in recent weeks, according to Burbio.com, a site that collects school calendar data. An average of 180 schools were not offering in-person instruction last week nationwide, down from some 6,000 on Jan. 14.
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