New Jersey teachers, as well as all state workers, must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 18, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.
Those who are not vaccinated will be tested for the coronavirus “a minimum” of one to two times per week, Murphy said at a news conference.
The mandate applies to staff in all public, private, and parochial schools in preschool through 12th grade, as well as employees of public colleges and universities.
“As the school year rapidly approaches, we are doing all we can to support as safe a start as possible,” Murphy said. “Strong masking and vaccination protocols, in tandem with other safety measures, are our best consolidated tool for keeping our schools open.”
Murphy announced earlier this month that masks would be required in New Jersey schools.
The governor said he’s received reports indicating “overwhelming support” for vaccines, and noted that the number of pediatric patients in hospitals nationwide has tripled over the last four weeks.
“We’re not going to sacrifice the health of our kids and staff,” he said.
The news came amid the continuing spread of the delta variant and rising COVID-19 case counts, and as major school systems like New York and Philadelphia enact or mull vaccination mandates days before the start of the 2021-22 school term. The announcement also was made on the same day the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer vaccine.
Murphy had previously announced a vaccine mandate for workers in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and prisons.
Schools can tap federal funding to assist with any costs associated with testing or vaccinations, Murphy said.
“We’re taking these steps to make sure that overwhelmingly, we’re back in business in school, in person, Monday through Friday.” he said.
Schools must also have contingency plans in place for quarantine in the event of outbreaks.
Murphy did not have an estimate for how many teachers are vaccinated so far but said he’s received indications that the number is already high, with the rate among other staff estimated as somewhat lower.
About 53% of 12- to 17-year-olds have had at least one vaccine dose, Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli said.
“We have received multiple local reports that point to an overwhelming majority of our educational and classroom leaders having already taken their personal responsibility to their families and students and colleagues seriously and gotten vaccinated,” said Murphy.
The governor, who has strong support from the New Jersey Education Association, said the talks have been “constructive” in terms of agreeing on the combination of mask-wearing, vaccines, and regular testing this fall.
“COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool we have to better protect our schools and communities against this pandemic and the terrible toll it continues to take,” officials including Marie Blistan, a Washington Township teacher and NJEA president, said in a statement. “Public health experts agree on the importance of widespread vaccination. That is why we strongly agree that Gov. Murphy’s executive order is appropriate and responsible under current conditions.”
Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, applauded the governor’s move.
“I think it’s in the best interest of preserving and protecting public health — for our staff and our students,” Benson said. He was also relieved that the edict came from the state; in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has left masking and vaccination protocols to individual districts, often sparking fireworks at the local level.
Benson said he didn’t think vaccination would be a tough sell for the vast majority of his members; a recent survey of school workers said about 80% had already been inoculated against COVID-19.
Katrina McCombs, Camden superintendent, also came out in favor of the mandate.
“The safety and well-being of our students, staff and families remains our top priority,” McCombs said in a statement, adding that she was proud of the district’s vaccination rate. Camden, like a number of other districts, is operating vaccination clinics in the days leading up to schools reopening.
With most South Jersey schools set to open after Labor Day, administrators said they were now mapping out the specifics of implementing Murphy’s order.
Maple Shade Superintendent Beth Norcia, who said about 93% of her staff surveyed had already received the vaccination, said the district would likely have school nurses test employees who opt not to be inoculated.