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Local Pressure Builds for Murphy to Drop School Mask Mandate Earlier

A student wears a face mask while in school. (Credit: Jill Carlson ( Flickr)

A student wears a face mask while in school. (Credit: Jill Carlson ( Flickr)

Following Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement that a controversial mandate to require children to wear face masks in school would end in March, local officials called on the governor to end the rule immediately – with some questioning whether Murphy should maintain his emergency powers after they expire Feb. 11.

Northern Ocean County’s state legislative delegation as well as some municipal officials said the practice should end immediately. Murphy said the mandate will end March 7. GOP officials came out swinging after the announcement, and the all-Republican Toms River township council is expected to pass a resolution Wednesday making its case.

“This is just more foot-dragging by the administration,” the legislators, Sen. James Holzapfel and Assemblymen John Catalano and Gregory P. McGuckin said in a joint statement.

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“It is impossible to fathom the governor’s reluctance to free school kids from the masks immediately,” said Holzapfel. “Why the delay for another month? Stop playing around. It has been a year and a half, and residents don’t want to wait until March 7 to get their parental rights back.”

Republicans in the legislature have started an initiative known as “Give It Back,” which is aimed at restoring pre-pandemic policies and some personal freedoms. Murphy, for his part, acknowledged frustration over the mandate but said the state has “reached a point where we feel confident that we can take another step toward normalcy for our kids.” Murphy thanked “the overwhelming majority of students, parents, administrators, educators, and support staffers who have worn their masks without problem or protest.”

Trenton insiders have long held that the fate of mask mandates depended largely on the position of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union which wields monumental political influence in the halls of the state capitol. The union put out its own statement following Murphy’s announcement.

“As we have said from the beginning of the pandemic, it is critical to follow the data and listen to public health experts when implementing or removing COVID protocols,” the statement said. “As of today, that data is trending strongly in the right direction, and we look forward to additional public health guidance supporting the move away from mandatory masking in schools.”

The labor organization did leave the door open for a change in its position, however. The statement urged Murphy to remain open to “the possibility of maintaining or reimposing the mask mandate for schools after March 7 if the data indicate that is the correct course.”

That view is not sitting well with legislative Republicans.

“This has gone on for far too long,” said Catalano. “We have reached the point of diminishing returns, and the governor should understand his reign as health dictator has run its course.”

Toms River Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill, who has opposed mask mandates and recently held a meeting with a Lowe’s home improvement store over signs incorrectly stating that a local mandate was in place, agreed that the school requirements should be eased immediately.

“Two weeks to flatten the curve has extended to two years of unchecked executive power that has resulted in economic devastation for New Jersey’s small businesses and untold damage to the mental health and development of New Jersey’s school children,” Hill said.

Whether the mandate ends on March 7 as planned, or earlier due to political pressure, it is unlikely that the matter will be settled everywhere. It is expected that local school districts will still be able to enact their own mask policies, including an extension of the state’s requirement. The NJEA’s position supports local mandates if necessary.

“It is appropriate for Gov. Murphy to allow local districts to continue to require masking in communities where that is prudent based on local conditions,” the organization’s statement said.

Ocean County’s lawmakers have sponsored a bill that would make it illegal for any school district to require masks be worn by children on buses or inside facilities.

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