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N.J. students return for new year with mask mandate in place and schools ready to enforce

“We don’t want to lose a lot more lives than we already lost,” said a Woodbury high school student.

School nurse Kathy Dreger hands out paperwork to junior high school students as they attend an orientation at Woodbury High School on Tuesday. When New Jersey students return to school next week, they face a mask mandate.
School nurse Kathy Dreger hands out paperwork to junior high school students as they attend an orientation at Woodbury High School on Tuesday. When New Jersey students return to school next week, they face a mask mandate.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When students filed into the auditorium at Woodbury Junior-Senior High School for orientation, they received mandatory instructions for the new year: Wear a mask.

Thousands of students around the region and across the country are beginning a second year with a mask mandate, a requirement that has continued to spark fierce debate — some parents favor face coverings, but others say they are ineffective and believe only parents should have the power to decide.

Yet there’s been a month to prepare since Gov. Phil Murphy imposed the mask rule Aug. 6 for students and teachers in New Jersey’s more than 600 public school districts, as well as private and parochial schools. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a similar mandate this week, even as many suburban districts already had started classes, and Philadelphia already had approved a mask requirement.

In New Jersey, with a few exceptions for students with medical issues or special needs, the mandate means that masks must be worn indoors. With most schools in the state opening after Labor Day, officials have been devising plans for students and staff.

“We’re ready,“ said Clayton School Superintendent Nick Koutsogiannis. “I’m looking at this as being a regular school year; we just have to wear a mask.”

Like other districts, Clayton has met with parents, reviewed the mask policies, and put up signs around the school to remind students face coverings are required. Many districts have plans to keep pandemic-established protocols such as social distancing or assigned seats while riding the bus or eating in the cafeteria.

To help districts comply with the mandate, Murphy said the state has 6 million KN95 masks and 500,000 child-sized masks available. They will be provided free of charge for districts to give to students or staff who forget or damage their masks, he said.

“No excuses, everybody has to mask up,” said Woodbury Superintendent Andrew Bell. “It’s just something we have to accommodate for and get through as best as possible.”

Bell said students and staff readily complied with the mandate during the 2020-21 school year and he expects the same this year. During a two-day orientation this week, the mask message was reinforced for new students who took tours to learn their way around the building.

“Find one that’s comfortable for you,” said Jacqueline Edmonds, an assistant principal for grades six through eight. “You have to wear it all day.”

Senior Class President Theodore Lockhart, 17, wearing a mask with the school logo, gave a pep talk to the underclassmen and showed them how to open their lockers. Lockhart, an athlete, said he doesn’t mind putting on a mask, partly to protect his newborn brother, Deor.

“We just have to follow the rules,” Lockhart said. “If wearing the masks keeps everyone safe, then I’m all for it. We don’t want to lose a lot more lives than we already lost.”

Parent Christina Coffield, whose daughter Marla, 12, is a seventh grader at Woodbury, agreed. “I feel like it’s necessary.”

Some districts said time will be allotted to give students mask breaks outdoors. Teachers say they plan to conduct lessons outside when possible. School nurses, on the front line since the pandemic began, are geared up to play a key role again checking temperatures, ensuring mask-wearing, and quarantining students if needed.

“There is a lot on the plates of school nurses,” said Robin Cogan, a preschool nurse in Camden.

Schools were not a major source of transmission of the coronavirus last year, but there were some outbreaks. Murphy cited a need for universal masking because of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the state, concerns about the fast-spreading delta variant, and the lack of a vaccine for children younger than 12. He also mandated that teachers and staff get vaccinated by Oct. 18 or undergo regular testing.

Aliye Pehlivan, 17, a senior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, said she is happy to return to school after being remote last year. But she is concerned about a possible surge in coronavirus cases.

“I’m definitely worried about the delta variant,” said Pehlivan, who is vaccinated.

The CDC recently recommended masks for students and staff regardless of their vaccination status as schools reopened for in-person instruction. But many parents have seen the guidance as optional rather than a requirement. Some have organized learning pods and plan to homeschool their children.

“I believe it’s a parent’s decision. They know their child better than anyone,” said Michelle Cunningham of Franklin Township in Gloucester County. She plans to enroll her son, Michael, 15, an incoming freshman, at Delsea Regional High School.

Cunningham, a school board member and a first-grade reading teacher in nearby Monroe Township schools, said she has seen younger students struggle to properly wear their masks and keep them clean. She said it is difficult to teach phonics when she cannot see their faces.

“It’s hard to teach kids anyway. This is just another layer put on top of it that is unfortunate,” said Cunningham, who has been an educator for 30 years.

There are a few exceptions to the mask mandate: students with documented medical conditions or disabilities that make wearing a mask dangerous, high-intensity gym classes, excessive heat, playing a musical instrument, and eating in a classroom or cafeteria.

Michelle Comber, who has two daughters, ages 6 and 11, enrolled in Cherry Hill schools, said she had her children practice wearing masks at home to get them ready. She worries about others they may have contact with at school.

“I’m very concerned with people who don’t wear masks,” said Comber, 41, a stay-at-home mother. “I’m very concerned with how it is going to be enforced.”

The issue was hotly debated on social media in Cherry Hill last week when a resident refused on several occasions to put on a mask while attending school events. The district banned the resident from school property, according to a letter he posted. Superintendent Joseph Meloche declined comment.

“We expect everyone to be wearing their face masks,” Murphy said this week.