By: Michael Mandarino, Follow South Jersey Managing Editor
TRENTON, N.J. — On Monday, New Jersey announced its health and safety guidance for the 2021-22 academic year. The state will not make it mandatory for school districts to enforce mask-wearing, but they can still do so if they choose.
The state’s approach to mask wearing in schools will be similar to its approach to mask wearing in general. It’ll take a laissez-faire approach to enforcing mask wearing that mostly relies on the honor system. There won’t be “vaccine police” monitoring individuals’ COVID-19 vaccination status and mask wearing habits.
New Jersey released a 15-page document with recommendations pertinent to health and safety in schools, but it is subject to change depending on updated COVID-19 guidance from the CDC. It previously announced that schools will be required to resume normal, full-time in-person operations and accommodations won’t be made for remote learning during the upcoming school year.
Although it’s possible that things will change between now and September, Monday’s announced guidance is meant to serve as an early blueprint for schools to work with.
“The recommendations we are releasing today will provide school districts with a roadmap to bring students and staff back to safe, enriching school environments,” Governor Phil Murphy said in a statement. “This guidance will help districts and educators develop plans to meet their student’s educational, social, emotional and mental health needs. Our students and educators have displayed amazing resiliency during the pandemic, and I am pleased that the upcoming school year will provide a sense of normalcy that students haven’t had since March 2020.”
One potential change that could happen before the start of the new school year is the vaccination status of children in the United States. At this time, those aged 12-17 are eligible to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine model, but multiple clinical trials are underway for children of all ages. The state’s guidance acknowledges that most schools in the state will have populations with a diverse range of vaccination statuses. Some people might be fully vaccinated, others might not have gotten their second dose, and some may not be inoculated at all.
No matter what each school district’s vaccination status is, the state is asking local education agencies (LEAs) to promote the COVID-19 vaccine models.
“Public confidence in immunization is critical to sustaining and increasing vaccination coverage rates and preventing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. LEAs should actively promote vaccination for all eligible students and staff,” the guidance says. “As vaccine eligibility expands, LEAs should consider school-wide vaccine coverage among students and staff as an additional metric to inform the need for preventive measures such as physical distancing and masking.”
Additionally, school districts should only enforce social distancing “to the extent practicable” while still being able to maintain normal in-person operations. The state listed facing all desks in the same direction and avoiding group seating arrangements as two possible ways in which schools can maintain physical distance.
LEAs will also be required to maintain close communication with local health departments and put procedures in place to address any students, faculty, or staff who begin to show COVID-19 symptoms.
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