New Jersey's governor, a proponent of strict Covid measures, announced Monday that masks will soon no longer be required in schools and day cares.
And not long after that announcement, officials in Connecticut, Oregon and Delaware also made public their plans to drop mask requirements for schools after a decline in Covid-19 cases and the growing availability of vaccines for children.
“Effective March 7, the statewide mask mandate in schools will be lifted,” Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted. "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," he said.
The New York Times was the first to report the New Jersey development.
"While we didn't want to keep any mandates in force for a moment more, the last thing we wanted to do was to pull back too early," Murphy said at an afternoon news conference.
"Every time you think you've got this thing figured out, it humbles you," he said of the pandemic.
But he said he was "confident" that the mask mandates could be lifted within four weeks, noting that case numbers were falling drastically, and warmer weather means the chance for greater ventilation in classrooms.
He added that the change would bring "a huge step back to normality for our kids."
Districts and childcare providers, though, will still be able to decide whether they want to impose a mask mandate "should community conditions require it," Murphy said. And anyone who wants to continue masking up in schools may do so.
New Jersey is one of just a dozen states with mask mandates in schools, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy.
Connecticut's plan to drop its statewide school mandate by the end of the month would require the state's legislature to renew pandemic emergency powers, scheduled to expire Feb. 15.
“Connecticut is seeing a dramatic decline in cases caused by the omicron variant, and children over the age of 5 have had the ability to get vaccinated for more than three months now,” Lamont said in the statement. “I think we are in a good position to phase out the requirement.”
Connecticut school districts have the option of keeping the mask requirement in place beyond February, it said.
In Oregon and Delaware, officials said Monday that mask requirements for schools will be lifted on March 31.
California's governor on Monday said that the state will allow its indoor mask mandate to expire next week but that masks will continue to be the rule in schools.
The masking issue has led to contention in districts all across the country.
News of the announcement prompted a range of reactions among New Jersey parents.
Dr. Firas Taha, a pediatric neurologist and father of two who lives in Jersey City, said he felt dropping masks could have social and emotional benefits for students, including “understanding each other better, less repetition, seeing other kids smiling.”
“I do encourage vaccination for children. I think that’s a much better tool at reducing Covid morbidity and mortality than the masks,” said Taha, whose 5- and 7-year-olds are vaccinated.
He added that he was open to masks in schools again in the future if a new variant emerges or cases surge, “but there should always be an end date or some kind of an off-ramp for masking.”
Pamela Addison, a reading teacher and mother of two who lives in Waldwick, said she was deeply disappointed by the governor’s move. Her husband died of Covid in April 2020, and having masks no longer required in schools “really is like a punch in the gut.”
“To families and kids who have lost someone to Covid, that mask represents them honoring their loved one. They know what Covid can do to a family, so they are going to continue to wear a mask,” Addison said. “For everyone else, removing it might mean they go back to normalcy, but they know they can’t ever go back to their normalcy.”
Her children, ages 2 and 3, have become accustomed to wearing masks at day care, she said.
“They don’t even notice it’s on half the time,” Addison said. “I think it’s just the adults are sick of the masks, not the kids. It’s such a little thing, and to hear people say these masks are ruining their lives? It’s like, ‘No, losing someone to Covid ruins your life.'”
Mask regulations in schools trigger controversy among parentsJan. 22, 202202:39
Murphy announced the indoor mask mandate before students returned to school in September 2020 after months of remote learning. In August 2021, he said the mandate would remain in effect for the 2021-2022 school year.
“We understand that students learn best in a classroom setting and remain committed to having our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction this fall,” Murphy said at the time. “While this announcement gives us no pleasure, I know that by taking this precaution we can keep our schools open while also keeping our children safe.
"We will continue to closely monitor the science and data and will lift this mandate when we can do so safely," he said.
Murphy renewed the mandate for masks in schools and day care centers on Jan. 11 while declaring a new public health emergency.
He faced pressure from Republicans and some parents who have held rallies at the statehouse in support of rescinding the requirement. But the governor has had support from the influential New Jersey Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union.
New Jersey, one of the hardest hit states in the early days of the pandemic, has had 2,134,982 confirmed cases and 31,968 of the nation's more than 900,000 coronavirus deaths, according to NBC News' tally.
In New Jersey and across the country, cases of the highly contagious omicron variant have started to fall.
Covid-19 cases in New Jersey have plummeted to a tenth of what they were at this time last month when the state was recording more than 30,000 cases day on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.