Days after it wrapped up an unprecedented 2020-2021 pandemic-ravaged school year, New Jersey is giving families a preview of the health and safety guidance expected for the next one.
Starting with the question top of mind for most families and students, Gov. Phil Murphy said masks will not be mandatory in schools across the state "absent any dramatic change in our situation" while revealing guidance for the 2021-2022 school year at his COVID-19 briefing Monday afternoon.
However, Murphy added, individual school districts will have the authority to implement masking requirements for its students. Apart from what individual districts decide, the state will still require masks on public schools buses.
"All schools must prepare to open for full-time, in-person instruction. The guidance being released today is to ensure this happens," Murphy said.
With remote instruction off of the metaphorical classroom table, school staff should still be ready to facilitate virtual learning for any students that exhibit symptoms of COVID, state education officials say.
"This is our best sense of what back to school looks like. It's far more than an educated guess; we feel quite comfortable putting this out," Murphy said. "But still over two months until school opens, we reserve the right depending on what the virus does or what the cdc pronounces to revisit some of this."
The new recommendations released by the state's Health Department and Department of Education will replaced the COVID-era protocols set to expire in July. State officials say the new protocols outline strategies to reduce risk of virus transmission and serve as a "roadmap to bring students and staff back to safe, enriching school environments."
Schools have been a bright spot in terms of exceptionally low COVID rates in New Jersey, and in New York across the river, in the face of varying vaccine eligibility between young people.
Eligibility could change over the summer, should the FDA expand age guidelines for vaccination. The CDC could also change its guidance. New Jersey has been slower to adopt changes on the mask front than New York has in recent months, though both states' core viral rates continue to mark record lows.
At this point, the CDC still recommends the “consistent and correct” use of masks for students and staff at schools to prevent viral spread.
A number of parents expressed frustration with ongoing school mask mandates as this school year waned, citing low in-school transmission rates and overall improvement in the national and local COVID outlooks.
Masks are encouraged but not required at summer camps in the Garden State this year, particularly for unvaccinated campers.
To date, nearly 5 million New Jerseyans are fully vaccinated, though kids age 12 to 15 account for just 3% of all doses administered in the state to date. Kids aged 16 and 17 account for an even lower share (2%) despite earning eligibility sooner.