Gov. Phil Murphy is now requiring everyone in K-12 schools in New Jersey to wear masks when the new academic year begins next month.
“This is not an announcement that gives any of us or me personally any pleasure,” Murphy saidat an East Brunswick elementary school. “But as the school year approaches and the numbers rapidly increasing it is the one we need to make right now.”
The mandate applies to all students, teachers, staff and visitors to any school in New Jersey and covers all public, private and parochial schools.
The executive order only mentions indoor settings. There will be some exceptions: Students with documented medical conditions or disabilities that make wearing a mask dangerous; “Rigorous activity” in gym class; during excessive heat; while playing a musical instrument; and while eating in a classroom or cafeteria.
New Jersey had 1,263 COVID cases linked to in-school activity last academic year among more than 1 million students, teachers and staff, Murphy said.
COVID hospitalizations had almost doubled to 599 on Thursday, the most since late May. Hospitalizations were between 400 and 500 at the start of the last school year, when vaccines were not available. Meanwhile, daily COVID vaccination efforts have slowed considerably in New Jersey, going from about 40,000 shots a day in mid-June to fewer than 20,000 in recent weeks.
Still, New Jersey’s vaccination rate is better than much of the U.S. About 5.3 million New Jerseyans — about 58% of the state’s 9.2 million residents — are fully vaccinated. About 51% of all Americans are fully vaccinated.
As of Friday, every county in New Jersey was considered to have substantial or high transmission rates except Warren, according to the CDC.
The rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations comes as the highly contagious delta variant has become the dominant strain in New Jersey.
Delta made up 83.9% of all coronavirus strains in New Jersey as of July 17, the most recent date for which data is available. It’s a tremendous increase from June 5, when it was at 7.3%, and May 8, when it was first detected at 1.3%
As the delta variant virus is more infectious, you need to have a higher percentage of people who are immune to keep it from spreading from person to person, said Dr. Ed Lifshitz, medical director of the state Health Department.
Vaccines have only been authorized for those 12 to 17 years since May. Since then, 37.7% of that age group has been fully vaccinated in New Jersey. About 47% have had at least one dose.
A Gallup poll this week reported that two-thirds of U.S. adults and 60% of K-12 parents support mask mandates for unvaccinated teachers and staff members. About 64% of adults and 57% of parents favor mask mandates for unvaccinated students.
Murphy, a Democrat, is also seeking reelection. His Republican opponent, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, criticized Murphy’s decision, calling it “a bewildering reversal.” Murphy countered, “Anyone telling you that we can safely reopen our schools without requiring everyone inside to be wearing a mask is quite simply lying to you.”