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New Jersey school mask mandates are set to end in 2nd week of March

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

New Jersey will no longer require students and school employees to wear masks, starting the second week of March.

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PHIL MURPHY: Because of the dramatic decline in our COVID numbers, effective Monday, March 7, the statewide school mask mandate will be lifted.

SHAPIRO: That's Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, who made the announcement this afternoon. He's calling for a return to normal as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state has started to fall.

NPR's Education Correspondent Anya Kamenetz has been covering the evolution of mask rules in schools. Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: New Jersey isn't the first state to take this step. Some of Governor Murphy's neighbors have let mask mandates expire in other states and some states are considering it. In Illinois, a judge suspended the statewide mask mandate last Friday. Give us a picture of what's going on.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, thanks. So I should start by saying that the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have reaffirmed that their guidance is that all children over 2 years old should be wearing masks in school. And yet, you know, masks in schools have obviously been one of the most divisive issues throughout the pandemic.

And just to give you a sense, Ari, there are eight states right now with statewide mask mandate bans in schools and 11 states with statewide mask mandates in schools - that would be 10 now that New Jersey's mandate is lifting. In general, about two-thirds of large districts still have these rules in place, but clearly that's poised to change.

SHAPIRO: What's going on in schools to change the view of mask policies? Like, what have you been hearing from teachers and parents?

KAMENETZ: So, you know, there's always been people, of course, who are opposed to mask rules and other COVID restrictions on principle, basically, for partisan political reasons. I think what's changed is now we're coming off the omicron surge, cases are dropping in many places, we have vaccines available for all school age children, we have high rates of vaccination generally for school staff, mandates for those staff in many places. So there are folks who have been on board with reasonable COVID precautions up to now who are looking around and saying, you know, our kids' school experience is really impeded by this.

And what's made it particularly difficult in places like New Jersey or New York state, where I live, you know, there is no statewide indoor mask mandate for adults. So you'll see crowded nightclubs, bars, restaurants, sporting events full of maskless adults, and then kids have to go to school, and they're shouting to be heard through their mask, or they're eating silent lunch to avoiding spreading COVID.

SHAPIRO: I know you are a parent yourself, and I think we might be hearing your children in the background there...

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...So we're all working from home. What about students who have pre-existing conditions or vulnerable family members at home?

KAMENETZ: So obviously that's a concern, and I've heard from some of those parents, even today. There is a coalition of medical professionals who are in favor of lifting school mask mandates and have been getting some attention under the name Urgency of Normal. And one of their talking points is that, especially with the new respirator-grade masks, like a KN95, that's going to provide a certain level of protection no matter what other people are doing. So essentially, it's an argument that one-way masking is always going to be available as a choice, and that's something Governor Phil Murphy affirmed today.

SHAPIRO: So we've been talking about policies at the state level. What about at the district level? How are school districts responding to changing guidance?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So we reached out today to a bunch of large districts in New Jersey, as well as in Illinois, where the mandate has just been suspended by a court order. Mostly they said, you know, we're going to confer with our community and assess. In some of the Illinois districts, they're already making the masks optional.

This is going to be a difficult one because the governors are essentially pushing it down now to districts to make and enforce these decisions. And superintendents and principals have been and will continue to be lobbied by very passionate parents on both sides of this issue who want to keep the masks or want to get rid of the masks, and that's already led to a bunch of confrontations this school year, and I expect those to continue.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.