Murphy says decision to drop school mask mandate was based on science. Do experts agree? –

Stacy Tarbell, 6th grade teacher, center, works with students during in a class at Sandyston-Walpack Consolidated School in Layton. The school holds in class education during COVID-19 omicron surge without any problems. Thursday, January 6, 2022. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media
Data drives decisions, Gov. Phil Murphy has said over and over again while explaining or defending various coronavirus restrictions over the past 23 months.
But when it comes to requiring masks inside New Jersey’s schools, one of the most contentious coronavirus-era rules, was this a data-driven decision?
Yes, experts told NJ Advance Media.
“I think you can point to data that would show why [dropping the mask mandate] could be a good idea,” Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Montclair State University, said.
Plummeting case rates, both in the population as a whole and in school communities, support ending mandatory masking this spring, Silvera said, but if she were calling the shots she would “probably feel more comfortable” keeping it in place until April.
Donna Nickitas, dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, said that although “a lot can happen” in the weeks leading up to the mandate expiring, the numbers are trending in the right direction to support the decision.
“We don’t know at this moment in time [what March will look like], but we do know that the governor is making this decision based on the evidence that he has on hand and the science,” Nickitas said.
For the week ending Jan. 30, there were 6.01 COVID cases per 1,000 students, and 8.28 cases per 1,000 according to data voluntarily reported to the state by 63 percent of all New Jersey schools.
Those numbers are a significant drop from just five weeks ago, down from a post-winter break high of 58.51 cases per 1,000 staffers on Jan. 2 and 28.99 cases per 1,000 students, Jan 9. But despite the downward trajectory, they remain higher than they were in mid-December for both groups. (The publication of school case data lags a week, so it’s possible the real-time numbers have continued to mirror the state-wide drop in cases. New Jersey on Tuesday reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases since before Thanksgiving.)
So why wasn’t the mask mandate dropped earlier in the school year, when cases per 1,000 school members were under 5?
The proliferation of the Delta variant, which caused more severe illness than the milder Omicron variant, and the looming winter, when more people are inside and not utilizing pandemic best practices of fresh air and heading outside, made unmasking an unsafe decision, Nickitas said.
The outlook is much sunnier now: COVID cases are expected to continue to drop, reaching levels not seen since last summer, Silvera said, if not going lower. The rate of transmission was 0.49 on Friday, meaning the spread of the virus is shrinking in New Jersey.
Critics of the mask mandates, including several Republican lawmakers, have been calling for the mask mandate to be dropped for weeks. Murphy was inaugurated to his second term as governor on Jan. 18.
“I think that is where the politics unfortunately come into it. In that, I think there is a lot of pressure to have taken away the mandates three weeks ago, so if we’re trying to find a sweet spot in between [right now and April], mid-March, it might be the best that we can do,” Silvera said.
There’s also a different cost-benefit calculus to mask wearing now, Nickitas said. Before vaccines and some natural immunity afforded to the community by the massiveness of the omicron wave, masks were the best protection we had. But with 30% of eligible New Jersey children fully vaccinated, according to state statistics, risks of the virus no longer totally override the social-emotional wellbeing of children.
“I think for children, especially those who are hard of hearing and can’t read lips as easily [ while masks are on,] or have autism or other psychosocial health concerns, that visualization with the teacher means so much,” Nickitas said.
For his part, Murphy has denied that politics played any role in the decision to nix the mandate, saying he “disavow[ed] the premise of the question” when asked at a Monday press conference. He also said there was “literally zero” influence by Democratic governors in other states, several of whom also announced plans to drop mask mandates this week.
About half of New Jersey’s 21 counties still have case rates in the schools above the state average of 6.3 cases per 1,000 staff and students. But a number of counties have school case rates significantly lower than the state average, including one county with a rate of 3.3 cases per 1,000. Those figures reflect overall positive cases, not necessarily cases transmitted in school.
Local districts will retain the ability to implement mask mandates, and no district can ban masks outright, Murphy said. Several districts, including Newark and Camden, have already said as of now they will retain their mask madates after March 7.
Taking a local, data-based approach will be necessary going forward, Silvera said.
“Municipalities and local school boards need to look at what are the case rates in your community? What are the vaccination rates in your community, because if the vaccination rates are high and hospitalizations are low, you may feel better about not requiring masks or even necessarily having as robust testing happening,” Silvera said.
Although the state does not publish school-specific vaccination data, Nickitas said that data might be kept at the school level and can be used to help guide parents in deciding to keep their children masked or to unmask.
The effect of dropping the mask mandate will likely be felt on a localized level as well.
“There does seem to be this correlation between people who are unwilling to be vaccinated — either themselves or their children — may be less likely to wear masks,” Silvera said. “We may have these very localized spikes where it might not be impacting the state overall, but in particular communities, they might be hard hit going forward.”
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