More NJ school districts push back on mask mandate.

On Friday, New Jersey's indoor mask mandate will be lifted. There are, however, notable exceptions. This has caused a great deal of confusion and frustration for businesses eager to operate at full capacity, but still wanting to make employees and customers feel safe.

In the midst of that tumult, Gov. Phil Murphy then dropped a bombshell in an interview on MSNBC: elementary school kids will still be forced to mask-up in the fall. Vaccines are not yet available for kids under the age of 12, Murphy said, so the mask mandate remains in effect for all elementary and secondary schools in the state and he doesn't expect that to change in the fall.

The mask-in-school policy has been a particularly thorny one in recent weeks. It started with a school nurse refusing to enforce the mask mandate, saying it was harming kids. Erin Pein lost her job because of her stance, but said she was grateful more people were waking up to the dangers of mask wearing.

Now, a handful of school districts are pushing back on Murphy's mask mandate.

Central Regional Schools Superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides sent a letter to the governor last week asking him to lift the mask mandate. Now, the entire Toms River School Board has done the same.

Toms River is the state's 6th largest school district, and Superintendent Joseph Nardini says an overwhelming number of students and families want the mask mandate lifted in school.

Nardini cited a high number of vaccinations among staff and low risk of infection among kids. He argued eliminating the masks would restore a sense of normalcy that "will help us all breathe easier, literally and figuratively."

At the Berkeley Township school board meeting held Tuesday night, a small group of parents showed up carrying signs that read "free the smile."

Murphy is unlikely to relent. He also has the support of the New Jersey Education Association. The teacher's union has been among Murphy's biggest supporters and political contributors. Local branches of the NJEA have often fought with school administrators over attempts to force teachers back into classrooms for in-person learning.

Republicans in the state Legislature will try and eliminate the mask mandate through legislation. A bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen Greg McGuckin and John Catalano seeks to override Murphy's mask requirement in school.

GOP members have tried to advance legislation curbing Murphy's pandemic powers throughout the health crisis, but have consistently been blocked by the Democratic majority.

Legislation is being reworked by Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin that would extend some of Murphy's pandemic powers until the end of the year, even as the public health emergency declaration is set to expire next month. However, it does not appear the legislation will specifically address issues concerning masks in schools.

One variable to this scenario is the possible approval of a vaccine for kids under the age of 12. Moderna says their COVID vaccine is highly effective and safe in kids as young as 12, and is on track to join Pfizer in approval for use in adolescents.

Both drug companies are also testing on younger children and even infants. However, results from those clinical trials are not expected until the fall, at the earliest. It is unlikely any COVID vaccine will be approved for children under 12 by the time the new school year begins in September.

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