Governors in four states plan an end to school mask mandates

Schoolchildren in masks lining up outside campus
Students line up to enter the Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
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The governors of four states announced plans Monday to lift statewide mask requirements in schools by the end of February or March, citing the rapid easing of the Omicron surge.

The announcements in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon — all headed by Democratic governors — came as state and local governments grapple with deciding which coronavirus restrictions to jettison and which ones to keep in place. The changes also come amid a growing sense that the coronavirus is never going to go away and that Americans need to find a way to coexist with it.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called the move “a huge step back to normalcy for our kids” and said individual school districts would be free to continue requiring masks after the statewide mandate ends March 7.


Meanwhile, California announced plans to end its indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people next week, but masks will still be the rule for schoolchildren in the nation’s most populous state.

The four states are among a dozen with mask mandates in schools, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. New Jersey’s requirement has been in place since classes resumed in person in September 2020.

Murphy cited the “dramatic decline in our COVID numbers” in announcing the rollback. The Omicron variant fueled a spike in infections over the holidays, but cases in the state are down 50% and hospitalizations dropped off by one-third since last week, he said.

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“We are not — and I’ve said this many times — going to manage COVID to zero,” Murphy said. “We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to an endemic phase of this virus.”

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont recommended ending the statewide mandate in schools and child care centers Feb. 28. Delaware Gov. John Carney said his state’s school mask mandate would run through March.

Oregon’s mask requirements for schools will be lifted March 31. The statewide mask requirement for indoor public places will be lifted no later than the end of March, health officials announced.


Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state medical officer and epidemiologist, said education and health officials would meet in the coming weeks to revise guidance to “ensure schools can continue operating safely and keep students in class” once the mask rule is lifted.

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The March 31 deadline was determined using predictions by health scientists that COVID-19-related hospitalizations would decrease to 400 or fewer by that time — a level that Oregon experienced before the Omicron variant surge.

The debate over masks in schools has been polarizing in much of the U.S., with parents protesting at school board meetings and slates of candidates — pro- and anti-mask — seeking school board seats in an attempt to shape policies.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that universal mask-wearing in schools “still remains our recommendation,” but she did not fault states for dropping the requirement.

“It’s always been up to school districts. That’s always been our point of view and always been our policy from here,” she said.

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Eight Republican-led states, including Florida and Texas, have bans on school mask mandates, though some have been suspended amid legal fights with districts and parents who want to require masks, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.


In Illinois, where a judge last week struck down Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide school mask mandate, the attorney general said Monday that he would appeal the ruling. The Chicago school system, where teachers recently refused to hold in-person classes until an agreement was reached on COVID safety measures, including providing KN95 masks to students and staff, said the nation’s third-largest district would continue to require masks.

In New Jersey, Murphy faced pressure from Republicans and some parents who have held rallies at the statehouse demanding an end to the mandate. But the governor has had support for the mask rule from the New Jersey Education Assn., the state’s biggest teachers union.

In a statement, the union noted that trends showed COVID-19 numbers heading in the right direction, and added: “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.”

Nationwide, new coronavirus cases per day have plunged by more than a half-million since mid-January, when they hit a record-shattering peak of more than 800,000. Cases have been declining in 47 states over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Also, the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen 28% since mid-January to about 111,000.

Deaths are still running high at more than 2,400 per day on average, the most since last winter, reflecting a lag between when victims become infected and when they die.

In New Jersey, it is unclear how many and how soon the state’s 600-plus school districts might end the wearing of masks. In Paterson, the state’s third-biggest city, the school system will take time to consult with administration officials, principals, parents and staff, said district spokesperson Paul Brubaker.

Connecticut will also allow individual school districts to retain the mandate. It’s unclear whether Delaware will follow suit, but the governor said he wanted to give school districts time to consider a local mandate.