The New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) has released its guidance on school masks after the mandate is lifted March 7.
“Providing a healthy and safe environment is key to keeping our children in schools,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli at a press briefing Feb. 23. “Our recommendations will continue to guide schools and child care providers in determining which COVID-related policies, including masking, are most appropriate for their students and staff based on their community-specific circumstances.”
Among the most controversial issues during the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Feb. 7 that the school face mask mandate would be lifted as due to New Jersey’s steady decline in cases, hospitalizations, and transmission rates as well as increased vaccination numbers. Local school district can still mandate a face mask being worn in school. Two of North Jersey largest school systems—Newark and Paterson—will keep the requirement in place after the first Monday in March.
The New Rules
“With this guidance, we have every confidence in our schools, working together again with their own medical personnel and local health officials, to maintain safe environments for learning,” said Murphy.
For schools and child care centers that choose not to implement a universal masking policy, NJDOH recommends that they require masks in the following circumstances:
- During periods of elevated community transmission: when the COVID-19 Activity Level Index (CALI) is high (orange), schools and child care centers should strongly consider universal masking for all students and staff, and if very high (red), schools and child care centers should require universal masking.
- During an active outbreak, if indicated based on consultation with local health department.
- After returning from isolation or quarantine: children and staff who return to school during days 6-10 of isolation or quarantine should be required to mask. This also applies to child care centers for children ages 2 and older; children under age 2 should remain home for 10 days.
- When illness occurs in schools or child care centers: children or staff who become ill with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should wear a mask until they leave the premises.
- During Test to Stay: Students participating in a Test to Stay modified quarantine program should be required to mask.
“While masks will not be required by the state, they remain an important part of a layered approach against COVID-19 and are recommended in certain circumstances,” said Persichilli. “Other layered preventions such as vaccination and boosters, physical distancing, frequent hand washing and staying home when feeling ill continue to be critically important in disease prevention.”
The guidance recommends school districts and school boards, as well as childcare centers, to consult with their local health department and school nurses in determining whether a universal masking policy is appropriate for buildings.
Factors to be considered when making decisions on masking include the ability for school setting to maintain physical distancing, screen students for COVID, perform contact tracing, exclude students and staff with COVID-19 or who have been exposed, and maintain adequate ventilation. Additionally, the vaccination rates of students and staff should be part of the equation.
The health department urged staff and parents to make masking decisions based on their specific situation. Persons who are immunocompromised or at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 (or who live with people that are) are encouraged to continue wearing masks.
Masks must be worn by all passengers on buses, including school buses, regardless of vaccination status per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements. Until lifted, the only exception is for children under the age of two, and those who cannot safely wear a mask.
The cumulative number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey as of Feb. 24 was 1,867,368 with 1,459 total new PCR cases. There were 348 probable cases, bringing the cumulative total of antigen tests to 294,121. The total number of individual cases for the state is 2,162,949.
As for those that have passed, the state reported 35 confirmed deaths, bringing that total to 29,866. The state listed probable deaths at 2,960, bringing the overall total to 32,826. State officials noted 12 deaths occurred in the last 24 hours of reporting that have not yet been lab confirmed.
For North Jersey counties on Feb. 24, Bergen had a total of 153 new confirmed cases and 40 new probable cases, Essex 145 new cases and 25 new probable case, Hudson 127 new cases and nine new probable cases, Morris 72 new confirmed cases and 22 new probable cases, Passaic 69 new cases and 19 new probable cases, Sussex 28 new cases and two new probable cases, and Warren 13 new cases and three new probable cases.
Of the total confirmed deaths in North Jersey, Essex County has the most with 3,249, followed by Bergen at 3,079, Hudson with 2,468, Passaic at 2,108, Morris at 1,216, Sussex at 372, and Warren County at 308.
In regards to probable deaths reported Feb. 22, Bergen has 321, Essex has 311, Morris has 294, Hudson has 221, Passaic has 199, Sussex has 88 and Warren has 27.
As for the rate of transmission reported Feb. 24, it increased to 0.71 from 0.69 the day before. The daily rate of infections from those tested Feb. 19 was 4.7%; by region, the rate was 4.1% in the North, 5.1% in the Central region and 5.4% in the South.
The state’s dashboard had a count of 963 patients hospitalized as all of the 71 hospitals in the Garden State filed reports Feb. 24. By region, there were 371 in the North, 328 in the Central and 264 in the South. Of those hospitalized, 154 are in intensive care units and 99 on ventilators—the first time under 100 since Dec. 4, 2021. A total of 145 patients were discharged in the last 24 hour reporting period.
Officials have continually cited transmission rate, hospitalizations, intensive care units, ventilators and positivity rate as health data they rely on to track how the coronavirus is being contained in New Jersey, guiding them in determining when restrictions have to be tightened or lifted.
Long-term Care Facilities
Health officials noted 459 long-term care facilities are currently reporting at least one case of COVID-19, accounting for a total of 24,889 of the cases, broken down between 11,592 residents and 13,297 staff.
Cumulatively, 2,364 long-term care facilities have reported an outbreak infecting 46,819 residents and 37,918 staff, for a total of 84,737.
The state’s official death total will now be reported as those that are lab confirmed, sits at 9,252 on Feb. 24. The facilities are reporting to the state 8,495 residents deaths and 149 staff deaths.
The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in New Jersey totaled 13,621,379 in-state, plus an additional 560,724 administered out-of-state for a grand total of 14,177,449 as of Feb. 23.
Of those who have received the vaccine, 6,485,226 received their second dose or the one jab Johnson & Johnson dose in state and another 224,033 out of state, bringing those fully vaccinated to 6,709,259. With just under 8.5 million eligible in New Jersey to be vaccinated, 77% are fully vaccinated and 91% have received at least one dose.
State officials reported boosters and third shots of 1,561,197 for Pfizer and 1,315,661 for Moderna. A total of 63,993 New Jerseyans have received their Johnson & Johnson booster shot. Overall, 2,940,851 have received a booster or third shot. Overall, 51% of the 5.7 million of those eligible have received their booster.
In North Jersey, Bergen County has 711,023 residents fully vaccinated, Essex 577,997, Hudson 517,275, Morris 381,403, Passaic 351,767, Sussex 91,383, and Warren 59,481.
According to the state dashboard with 65.7% of all New Jersey schools reporting, new student cases totaled 2,335 and new staff cases 553 in the last week as of Feb. 13. Cumulatively, 128,711 cases have been reported— 100,909 students and 27,802 staffers.
In regards to outbreaks related to in-school transmissions as of Feb. 22, the state has tracked 507 school outbreaks and 3,450 cases linked to those outbreaks since the 2021/2022 school year starting Aug. 7, up four outbreaks and 17 cases from the week previous.
Outbreaks are defined as three or more laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff with onsets within a 14 day period, linked within the school setting, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing.
For North Jersey in the new report, Bergen County has 58 confirmed outbreaks with 331 cases, Morris County has 40 confirmed outbreaks with 246 cases, Essex County has 33 confirmed outbreaks with 232 cases, Passaic County has 22 confirmed outbreaks with 188 cases, Sussex has 34 confirmed outbreaks with 177 cases, Hudson County has 19 confirmed outbreaks with 92 cases and Warren County has two confirmed outbreaks with 15 cases.