Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who has imposed some of the nation’s most stringent pandemic-related mandates, will no longer require students and school employees to wear masks, signaling a deliberate shift toward treating the coronavirus as a part of daily life.
“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” Mr. Murphy, the vice chairman of the National Governors Association, said Monday in announcing the elimination of the mandate.
The new policy will take effect the second week of March, two years after New York and New Jersey became early epicenters of a virus that has since mutated and resurged, killing more than 900,000 people nationwide.
The debate over mask wearing in schools has proved one of the most divisive issues in the pandemic, embroiling parents, school boards, teachers and elected officials in caustic clashes over academic loss, protecting public health and individual choice.
Mr. Murphy’s move follows a decision last month by the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, to rescind his state’s school mask mandate. Delaware also announced a March 31 end to its in-school mask mandate on Monday, and the Democratic governors of New York and Connecticut have said that they were re-evaluating school mask mandates that are soon set to expire.
An average of 78 New Jersey residents died each day from Covid-19 in the last week, contributing to a daily nationwide death toll of 2,600, a per capita rate that far exceeds those of other wealthy nations.
But new cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant are plummeting in New Jersey and across the country.
Last week, after meeting with President Biden at the White House during an annual governors conference, Mr. Murphy suggested it was time to reconsider how to manage the virus. “The overwhelming sentiment on both sides of the aisle,” he said on Wednesday, “is we want to get to a place where we can live with this thing in as normal a fashion as possible.”
School districts — already at the center of polarizing mask battles that have shut down board meetings, provoked protests and led to round after round of legal challenges — will be free to continue to require mask wearing or to restore the rules if the virus spikes again. Districts are sure to face pressure, whether they choose to follow the governor’s lead and get rid of mask rules or keep them in place.
Republican leaders in many states, including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, have banned mask mandates in schools, leading to court fights with districts that wanted to enforce mask wearing.
The controversy over masks helped energize Republican voters in last year’s governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia. And conservative candidates who are targeting Democratic opponents ahead of November’s pivotal midterm elections continue to tap frustration among parents weary of school disruptions.
New Jersey is among 11 states, including many of the country’s most populous, Democrat-led regions, that have made mask wearing mandatory for all students. This means that roughly 65 percent of the country’s 500 largest school districts have either full or partial mask requirements, according to the technology company Burbio, which tracks how schools have fared during the pandemic.
Students in New Jersey have been required to wear masks since September 2020, when most schools reopened after a four-month lockdown. In September 2021, Mr. Murphy expanded the mandate to apply to children 2 and older in day care and preschool — a rule that will also be lifted March 7.
Masks protect both the wearer from infection and those nearby from being infected. People who reported always wearing a mask indoors in public were less likely to test positive for the virus, according to a report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two studies published in September by the C.D.C. — which continues to recommend that children 2 and older wear masks at school and in day care — also found evidence that masks help prevent in-school transmission.
But prominent doctors, in a flurry of recent opinion essays and news appearances, have begun to question the validity of requiring students to wear masks as virus cases rapidly decline across the country. Doctors supportive of removing masks cite the extraordinary mental health strain children have faced during the pandemic and the educational value of seeing full faces, particularly for students who are nonnative English speakers or are learning to read.
“We need to get them back to normal,” said Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist in Washington, D.C., who has joined other doctors in calling for an end to school mask mandates.
“I think the dam is breaking,” she added.
“It’s hard to speak out because there’s been this sort of protect-against-Covid-at-all-costs attitude, which made sense in 2020, when we had no vaccines,” she said. “It just doesn’t add up anymore.”
But Dr. Jeanne Craft, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she was still treating children who become seriously ill from Covid. While vaccines are widely available, she noted that pediatric inoculation rates, particularly for children age 5 to 11, are low. Children exposed in school can also transmit the virus to vulnerable relatives at home, including siblings younger than 5, who are not yet able to be vaccinated.
“Saying that children are less likely to die of Covid, less likely to get severely sick from Covid, doesn’t mean that they can’t and that they don’t,” Dr. Craft said.
She stressed the importance of being willing to quickly adjust policies as virus rates change within communities.
“We are all cautiously optimistic in New Jersey that this most recent surge seems to have peaked,” she said. “But we were happy after the first and second surges ended, too.”
Mask rules in schools around the world vary widely, with some countries requiring pupils to wear them despite very low infection rates and others mandating masks only for older students, or only during surges in the pandemic.
Mr. Murphy has required all school employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing; he has not required them to get a booster shot.
The state’s largest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, a close ally of Mr. Murphy’s, said it agreed that the data showed the mask mandate can be “safely relaxed.” If virus cases spike, Mr. Murphy should keep open the possibility of “reimposing the mask mandate,” union leaders said in a statement.
Mr. Murphy’s decision comes less than two months after the Omicron variant began cutting a fresh path of destruction across the country. Last month’s spike in new infections caused widespread staffing shortages at hospitals, airlines and schools, forcing many districts to temporarily shift to all-virtual instruction.
But health experts who advised Mr. Biden as he prepared to take office have publicly urged him to adopt a strategy geared to the “new normal” of living with the virus indefinitely, not to wiping it out.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
New Jersey’s policy shift is based on the state’s precipitous drop in new cases and the declining severity of the disease, as well as a request Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, made last week to the Food and Drug Administration to authorize a vaccine for children younger than 5, aides to Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Murphy, in an interview on Sunday, also said that the implementation was deliberately timed for March, when temperatures will begin to climb, giving schools additional ventilation options. Many schools have kept windows open all winter to improve air flow.
The governor has frequently noted that requiring students and staff members to wear masks all day was never intended to be a permanent solution.
Removing them, Mr. Murphy said, is a “huge step toward normalcy.”
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont said last week that he was poised to announce a policy related to “how much flexibility to give to our towns and municipalities.”
In New York State, where a school mask mandate is set to expire on Feb. 21, Gov. Kathy Hochul hinted Friday that she was also preparing to alter the state’s vaccine and mask requirements. “We’ll be making some announcements in the short term as we see these numbers progressing,” she told reporters.
Dr. Bernard F. Bragen Jr., the superintendent of schools in Edison, N.J., one of the state’s largest suburban districts, said he expected to drop the mask requirement, while creating an environment that makes students who choose to wear masks comfortable.
Mask wearing, he said, had met with little to no resistance from students or parents in Edison.
“Some parents will welcome this option,” Dr. Bragen said. “But for other parents — their students may be wearing masks for years.”
Even before Monday’s announcement by Mr. Murphy, many school districts had begun to signal a desire to get closer to prepandemic footing.
In Cranford, N.J., where a parent who joined a legal challenge to overturn the mask mandate refused to wear a mask at a recent school board meeting, forcing it to adjourn, the superintendent sent a letter Friday stating his “renewed sense of optimism.”
Valentine’s Day parties would go on as planned, he wrote. Class trips for middle school students had been approved. And spectators were again welcome at indoor athletic events.
“We will continue to safely, and incrementally, move towards normalcy,” the superintendent, Dr. Scott Rubin, wrote.
But without a mask mandate, policies related to Covid exposure are likely to get far more complicated, administrators said.
Mask wearing has allowed schools to limit the number of students considered close contacts of an infected child or teacher, as defined by the C.D.C., minimizing the need to keep asymptomatic, unvaccinated individuals out of class. Unless guidance that determines who needs to isolate is altered, students exposed to the virus could be required to stay home more frequently once masks come off.
“If our goal is to keep students in school, then continuing to wear masks does that,” said Wendy Donat, a history teacher at Summit High School and a member of the executive board of her local teachers’ union.
“I don’t want to go back to teaching online,” she added, “and they sure don’t want to go back to learning online.”