Murphy: We can’t open schools safely without masks

Governor makes plea to those who disagree: ‘Let’s leave the politics at the door’

Gov. Phil Murphy — using what is becoming an increasingly adversarial tone — on Friday went right after those questioning the need for face coverings when he announced the state will mandate masks for all students, K-12, and all school personnel to begin the school year.

“Anyone telling you that we can safely reopen our schools without requiring everyone inside to wear a mask is quite simply lying to you,” he said. “Because we can’t.”

Murphy, who went viral earlier this week in remarks to anti-vax protestors, said the mask policy is necessary because so many people remain unvaccinated — including all those under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible to get a vaccine.

“This is not an announcement that gives any of us or me personally any pleasure,” he said. “But, as the school year approaches, and with the numbers rapidly increasing, it is the one that we need to make.”

“There are issues that are and must always remain above politics,” he said.

Of course, things being what they are in the increasingly divided country — combined with the fact that this is an election year — led some to question the new policy.

Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, said Murphy is overstepping the science.

“Let me be clear, I oppose Gov. Murphy’s mask mandate for students,” he said. “The science is clear: nearly all children who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and wearing masks for children is terrible for their social and emotional development.

“Bottom line, whether a child wears a mask should be decided by parents, not government. If someone wants to have their child wear a mask, they should feel free to do so, but it’s not something that should be forced on children, nor should their learning be inhibited in any way.”

The group of educators and health officials who joined Murphy at the announcement at an elementary school in East Brunswick obviously felt otherwise.

Dr. Jeanne Craft, president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she is worried about the increase of cases in the past few weeks.

“Here in New Jersey, we have seen a concerning rise in viral spread,” she said. “A hopeful spring has become a worrisome summer. The conditions have changed, the risk is higher, especially for children. We need to move forward with an abundance of caution. We have come so far, but we need to continue to rely on scientific evidence and expert advice to keep children, teachers, school staff and communities as safe as possible.”

Craft, who said she cares for adolescent COVID-19 patients, offered the most sobering of statistics: Seven children in New Jersey have died from the virus, she said.

For weeks, Murphy had said he would wait until the school year got closer before considering action — and that the decision could be left under local control. Other speakers Friday praised him for making the decision sooner rather than later, saying it will allow school officials and parents to better plan for the school year.

Murphy said the mandate will only last as long as health metrics warrant — though, as usual, he offered no specific marks for those metrics. He also indicated he was all-in on reopening schools.

“I want to be also clear that our schools will open for full-time, in-person instruction,” he said. “As previously announced. We remain steadfast in the recognition that our children learn better in a classroom setting tailored for their educations.”

Murphy closed with a plea for peace and understanding among those who disagree with the mandate — a conciliatory olive branch for protestors who met him upon his arrival.

“This is a simple step that each of us can take, kids and adults, that meaningfully pushes back against the transmission of this virus and especially against this variant,” he said. “I would just beg folks, including the folks outside, who don’t appear to be too happy about this, to let them know that A) we’re making this decision based on the facts; there’s no speculation here. And B) let’s leave the politics at the door.

“This is not about politics. This is above politics. This is doing the right thing. I would beg folks to see that — even if they’re not happy about this.”

Under the governor’s mandate, masks will be broadly required in school buildings for the coming school year. Exceptions will remain unchanged from the 2020-2021 school year, including:

  • When doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, such as when the individual is exposed to extreme heat indoors;
  • When the individual has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance;
  • When a student’s documented medical condition or disability, as reflected in an Individualized Education Program or Educational Plan pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, precludes use of a face covering;
  • When the individual is under 2 years of age;
  • When an individual is engaged in an activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask, such as eating and drinking or playing an instrument that would be obstructed by the face covering;
  • When the individual is engaged in high-intensity aerobic or anaerobic activity;
  • When a student is participating in high-intensity physical activities during a physical education class in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from all other individuals; or
  • When wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.