Pennsylvania and New Jersey moved in opposite directions on the mask debate Friday, with Gov. Phil Murphy ordering students and staff in grades K-12 to wear them when the new school year begins and Gov. Tom Wolf saying the decision should be made by local districts.
Murphy made the highly anticipated announcement during a scheduled visit to an elementary school in East Brunswick, where protesters opposed to the mandate demonstrated outside. He cited a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the state, rising concerns about the fast-spreading delta variant, and the lack of a vaccine for children under 12.
“This is not an announcement that gives me or any of us any pleasure,” Murphy said, adding that “it is the one that we need to make right now.”
In sharp contrast, Wolf said he has no plans to issue a school mask requirement. Asked whether he was considering such a mandate, he said: “No.” Wolf said he didn’t see it as the state’s role to require masks.
“I think the school districts in Pennsylvania have to decide what they want to do,” Wolf said.
Murphy previously had said he, too, would leave it up to districts and schools to determine whether masks should be mandatory. With schools reopening in a few weeks, officials around the region and the country are grappling with that decision.
An executive order signed by Murphy mandates masks indoors for all public, private, and parochial schools, with a few exceptions, such as when people are exposed to extreme heat indoors, eating, or playing an instrument. The order takes effect Monday.
Lawnside School Superintendent Ronn Johnson said his Camden County school system decided to require masks in July, beginning for its summer program. Most of the 320 students in the K-8 district are not eligible for the vaccine.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” Johnson said.
Murphy said schools are expected to fully reopen. He has said schools will not be permitted to offer remote instruction. Students with medical issues or special needs could be exempted from wearing masks, he said.
The mask requirement will be lifted when the COVID-19 transmission rate declines, Murphy said. During the 2020-21 school year, there were 1,263 positive cases linked to schools, he said.
“This is not permanent,” Murphy said of the mask mandate. He was joined by educators, health professionals, and the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union, which supported the mandate.
Pennsylvania districts have taken different approaches so far: Some are requiring everyone to wear masks, while others are planning only for optional masking. Others are still on the cusp of making decisions.
“It just seems like no one really knows — everybody’s just throwing a dart at a dartboard and hoping they get it right,” said Dan Nerelli, superintendent of the Chichester School District. The Delaware County district has not decided whether masks will be required.
Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. previously announced that all students and staff will be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The district was also exploring the legal possibility of making staff vaccinations mandatory.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended masks for students and staff regardless of their vaccination status as schools reopen for in-person instruction this fall. But many districts have seen the guidance as optional rather than a requirement.
“They’re not mandating it and neither am I,” Wolf said at a news conference in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said it was “essential that decision-making occurs locally,” and that area school boards would have to consider local COVID-19 rates and other community factors in making fall plans.
New Jersey school officials, working on reopening plans, welcomed Murphy’s announcement. In addition to masks, many have plans to maintain social distancing and other health and safety precautions implemented during the pandemic.
“I stand behind it 100%” said Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs, noting that her district adopted a mask requirement. “We’ve got to do everything possible to make sure we are keeping our students safe.”
Haddon Township School Superintendent Robert Fisicaro was somewhat relieved that Murphy made the controversial decision. Parents were divided on the mask question, he said.
“It was going to be a very tough call,” Fisicaro said.
Murphy’s mask mandate drew immediate backlash from some state Republican lawmakers and parents who are opposed to the requirement. Some parents in the Facebook Group “NJ Fresh Faced Schools” say they plan to pull their students from public schools.
“I don’t agree with parents’ choice being taken away as to what happens with their kids,” said Jeff Taccarino, 41, of Ocean City, the father of a seventh grader. “I want to be the one to decide.”
Kristen Sinclair, of Medford, a lawyer, said her 7-year-old son had a hard time wearing a mask. She plans to homeschool the second grader this year.
“I’m just not going to comply with it again,” Sinclair said.
Cynthia Buehrig, 40, of Deptford, said she was relieved that her daughter, Sophie, 4, will wear a mask for preschool.
“I feel like it’s just a common-sense thing. Do the right thing,” she said. “The little kids are most at risk.”
Parents who favor masking were closely watching developments in New Jersey.
“We think they made the right decision,” said Lynn Rutecki, a mother in the Neshaminy School District who is part of a group of Bucks County parents that has been petitioning school districts and calling for required masking in schools.
So far, they haven’t been getting responses, Rutecki said. But she said they would continue their advocacy.
New Jersey “does give us hope. … This is an important step to keep schools open, and for our children to be in the best environment possible to learn,” she said.
Staff writer Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.