Brick public school students will return to full-time, in-person classes June 1, but New Jersey’s controversial indoor mask mandate means they will have to continue to wear face coverings in many circumstances during what some parents are concerned could be the hottest weeks of the school year.
New Jersey is one of two states – Hawaii is the second – that is maintaining an indoor mask mandate following guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that persons vaccinated for the coronavirus no longer need to wear face masks in indoor settings. Gov. Phil Murphy, however, has announced that an indoor mask mandate will remain in place in public settings, including schools. This week, the New Jersey Education Association – the state’s largest and most powerful teachers’ union – called for continuing the mask mandate without specifying a preference as to when it should end.
In Brick, the school district is planning to enter the fourth and final phase of its return-to-school protocol after the Memorial Day holiday break ends. Students in grades kindergarten through 12 will be able to return to a full-day, five-day per week schedule for the last two weeks of school.
“Brick Schools has been at the forefront during this pandemic leading local education back to a somewhat sense of normalcy, and it is because of our stellar staff and caring community,” Superintendent Thomas Farrell wrote in a letter to the community last week.
District officials, at a Board of Education meeting Thursday night, responded to concerns over students going an entire day wearing face coverings.
“It’s time to open up our community,” said resident John Sluka. “This is settled science.”
Students will not have to wear masks the entirety of the school day, Farrell said. But the indoor mask mandate will be strictly enforced when it has to be. Students will be able to pull down their mask to eat lunch, however if they get up from their seat to throw an item in the garbage can, change tables or use the bathroom, the mask must return.
“As a public school district we’re required to follow the directions of the Department of Education and the governor’s executive orders,” Farrell said. “But there is a misconception that every second of the day, the students are wearing masks.”
Farrell said students who have a documented medical condition will be excepted from the requirement. Students will also be able to remove masks while engaging in physical activities, such as gym classes, and when they are outside. Farrell said he is encouraging teachers to utilize outdoor spaces for learning.
“When they’re inside, we do try to provide some respites,” said Susan McNamara, Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation for the district. “Students are separated to the extent practicable, and they can have a morning snack, and of course they can take the masks down for lunch. If they need to get up from the table to empty their trays, we’ll ask them to put their masks back on.”
Farrell went on to say that students may not mind wearing masks, according to teachers who briefed the administration.
“This is not phasing our young children, they do not even talk about it,” he said. “They want to be by their friends and their teachers. They know they can ask the teacher or see the nurse if it’s inhibiting.”
Farrell’s stance is contrary to that of Central Regional school district Superintendent Triantafillos “Tom” Parlapanides, who wrote a letter to Murphy this week asking him to end the mandate in schools.
“All teachers that wanted to be vaccinated have been vaccinated so teachers are now safe in the classroom,” Parlapanides wrote, urging Murphy to terminate the mandate so students “can breathe, and that at graduation, parents can see their children’s smiling face.”
Farrell said he agrees the social aspect of returning students to in-person, full-time learning is paramount, and hopes there will be no virtual option come September. But regardless of whether school officials are in support or opposition, the district will follow the governor’s orders.
“What I’ve been encouraging is, when we come back full time, it really is about a celebration about returning to a sense or normalcy,” Farrell said. “We are encouraging outside use of facilities in so many ways. When I was a teacher myself, I would take my class out to the stands and do a debate or a lesson. That has been our mantra and our encouragement because of the socialization.”
Farrell said the district’s phase four reopening plan is pending approval by the Ocean County executive superintendent of schools. Under the district’s plan, all visitors and staff must wear masks while inside schools buildings regardless of vaccination status.