Some N.J. school districts resume mask requirements as COVID cases rise

Some New Jersey schools announced Friday they would return to requiring masks for students and staff as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the state over the past month.

The latest state Department of Health COVID-19 activity level map shows five out of six regions at “high” risk for coronavirus activity as of May 7. Under state health guidelines, schools are encouraged to require masks if a district falls within a high- risk region. Just the southeast region including Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties remains moderate risk.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also shifted nine New Jersey counties to its “high” transmission risk on Friday. Those in high transmission risk counties are recommended to wear masks indoors in public places and on public transportation. It does not make school-specific recommendations.

New Jersey ended the statewide school mask mandate on March 7, though some districts continue to require them while others are now resuming mask requirements.

Metuchen school officials said Friday masks would be required for everyone inside school buildings and on buses starting on Monday, according to an announcement from the district.

“This requirement will be reconsidered on a week-by-week basis. Thank you for your understanding – and for your expected cooperation,” Superintendent Vincent Caputo said on social media.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District said masks would be mandated in Clinton Elementary and South Mountain Elementary.

“While the NJDOH and the local health departments strongly recommend ‘universal masking’ during high COVID community transmission, as a District, we are not instituting a District-wide return to mandatory ‘universal masking.’ This is due to the fact that the outbreaks identified by our local departments of health were contained to the respective schools and/or classrooms and the appropriate actions have been taken,” the district said in a statement.

“However, with the rise in outbreaks in our District over the past two weeks and the new information from the state, we are strongly recommending that all students/staff consider masking while indoors and on the bus. Based on the information we’ve provided, we are leaving it at the discretion of parents/staff to determine the best decision for themselves and their families and will respect the choices made by our students and staff,” the statement said.

Indoor masks would be required in specific settings, including large indoor large assemblies, according to the district, which posted details on its website.

In Montclair, school officials reinstated the mask mandate earlier this month as cases increased.

New Jersey reported 5,309 confirmed positive tests on Friday, the first time more than 5,000 cases have been reported since late January during the winter omicron wave.

The state’s seven-day average for confirmed positive tests increased to 3,453 on Friday, up 39% from a week ago, and up 136% from a month ago. That’s the highest seven-day average since Feb. 3, when the statewide school mask mandate was still in place.

Paterson, one of the few school districts that continued to require masking in April after the statewide mandate ended March 7, voted this week to drop its mask mandate starting Thursday.

Newark, the state’s largest school district, has kept its mask requirement in place. East Orange made masks optional at schools on May 9. New Brunswick lifted its local school district mandate on May 2.

According to the CDC, the counties ranked as “high” risk are Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Gloucester, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean and Sussex. Eleven counties are in the medium risk category: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Passaic, Salem, Somerset and Union. Warren County is in the medium risk category. Masks are not recommended in the medium and low regions.

Govt. Phil Murphy ended remaining statewide mask mandates for schools and public transit in March as the flood of omicron cases eased. The governor said last month that he doesn’t anticipate a return to statewide mask rules or other coronavirus-related restrictions.

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Noah Cohen may be reached at ncohen@njadvancemedia.com.

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