School districts and school boards as well as child care centers should consult with their local health department and school nurses in determining whether a universal masking policy is appropriate for their schools and child care centers.
Many factors should be considered when making decisions on masking, including a school or child care center's ability 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.
The vaccination rates of students and staff should also be considered.
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In addition to school district and child care center policies, staff and parents need 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 -- may choose to continue to wear masks.
"Providing a healthy and safe environment is key to keeping our children in schools," Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said. "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. 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. 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."
For schools and child care centers that choose not to implement a universal masking policy, officials recommend that they require masks in the following circumstances:
--During periods of elevated community transmission: When the COVID-19 Activity Level Index is high, schools and child care centers should strongly consider universal masking for all students and staff, and if very high, 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.
Masks will be required on school buses, regardless of the passengers' vaccination status, until federal guidelines are lifted.
"Nothing will or can prevent any student educator or staff member from continuing to wear a mask indoors if they so choose," Governor Phil Murphy said. "And to do so without fear of being bullied or otherwise singled out for making that choice."
The new guidance comes amid a new drive to get people boosted against COVID-19, even as declining numbers have led state officials to announce the end of weekly coronavirus briefings.
New Jersey's hospitalizations dropped below 1,000 for the first time since November 28, down from a high of 6,089 on January 11. Since then, the state has seen an 84% decrease in hospitalizations, an 81% drop in intensive care admissions, and a 78% decrease in patients needing ventilators.
Murphy said last week that only 51% of people in New Jersey have received their booster, and the "Boost NJ2 Week" drive runs through March 1.
"For the roughly 49% of you who are eligible for your booster but have yet to receive it, omicron is still among us," Murphy said. "It may have fewer targets, but it is still out on us."
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Murphy also said the time has come to end the state's regular COVID briefings, and that with mandates ending, the state is entering its new normal.
"As we move into our new normal and transition from a pandemic stance to endemic one, there is no longer the need for us to gather at a set time every week," Murphy said.
The last briefing will be March 4, the two year anniversary of COVID being detected in the state. Since then, Murphy has held more than 250 in-person briefings.
"We are pretty much getting back to where we want to be, which is normal," Murphy said. "I wasn't the only governor to hold briefings to update residents on our progress against the virus, but I am proud to hold more than any other."
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