NJ teachers union says schools should mask up again
TRENTON — Add the state's largest teachers' union to those who support "universal" masking in schools for the upcoming season, based on this week's updated CDC guidance.
“As we have from the beginning, we continue to advocate for the highest standards of health and safety in our public schools. We continue to believe that New Jersey’s public schools should follow the guidance of medical and public health experts, including CDC," according to New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steven Baker in a written response to New Jersey 101.5 on Wednesday.
"As we prepare to return to school buildings in just a few weeks, we look forward to further clarification from the Murphy administration, the New Jersey Department of Health, and the New Jersey Department of Education," he said.
Gov. Phil Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced on Wednesday that they are strongly recommending – though not yet mandating – that residents wear masks indoors when there is increased risk of contracting COVID-19, even for people who are fully vaccinated.
The updated guidance recommending a return to facial coverings indoors comes just a couple of weeks after a federal lawsuit was filed by parents, upset that their children were ever required to wear masks during the pandemic.
Kelly Lepine Ford is a leader of the group Free NJ Kids, that hired attorney Bruce Afran.
A suit filed in Newark federal court says that masking mandates “violate the First Amendment rights to speech and association and privacy of New Jersey school children.”
It does not address the CDC’s acknowledgment that although children themselves appear to largely avoid the most severe symptoms of COVID-19, it’s unknown how widely they may spread the virus, even when asymptomatic.
“You don’t want to get into a fight over medical evidence,” Afran said on a Fox News joint interview held remotely with Ford on Tuesday morning.
While the complaint mentions no scientific or medical information about the transmission of COVID, it does say multiple times that wearing masks causes anxiety among some children and also questions the psychological impact that such public health efforts might have on students.
Trained medical experts and scientists have endorsed proper wearing of multi-layer cloth masks as a proven tool against stemming the spread of COVID-19, which occurs through respiratory droplets and aerosol particles.
Supporters of the Free NJ Kids group have shared their own opinions on the effectiveness of masks on social media, saying they don't work.
It’s not just facial coverings that the group objects to but also the use of see-through, plexiglass partitions on desks while students are seated.
The material, similar to a sneeze guard at buffets, has been “isolating and segregating schoolchildren from each other and from teachers and staff ‘purportedly to prevent Covid transmission,'” according to the suit.
Ford, who has two teens who are both high school students, said during the same Fox News interview that her son had medical reasons that precluded him from wearing a face covering this past spring and said he had been isolated from other students.
When the state required masks in schools for the 2020-2021 year, there was “an exception if a student’s medical condition or disability precludes the use of a face covering in a school building and/or on a school bus.”
In those circumstances, the state’s previous guidance said that guardians of such students should provide documentation from the child’s healthcare provider to the student’s case manager or school principal.
"We also continue to urge everyone who is eligible and able to get vaccinated, which will make our schools and our communities safer for everyone,” Baker said, in the NJEA's stance with just over a month left before the start of the new school year.
As of Wednesday, out of more than 10.4 million vaccine doses administered in state, 18,000 doses had gone to kids ages 12 to 15, while another 37,500 had been given to 16- and 17-year-olds, according to state data.
None of the COVID-19 vaccines okayed for emergency use by the FDA have been extended to anyone younger than 12, as of mid-July.
While the federal lawsuit filed July 9 does not mention COVID-19 vaccinations as an issue, the Facebook group "Class Action Suit Free NJ Kids" has invited any college students objecting to school vaccine requirements to join the suit.
Eight counties in state had COVID transmission levels considered to be high or substantial, based on CDC data current through Sunday. Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Essex, Middlesex, Ocean and Union counties have been ranked as substantial, while Monmouth County was considered as within a high transmission level.
The state announced 854 new COVID cases confirmed by PCR test results on Wednesday and another 342 probable cases based on rapid test results.
With previous reporting by Michael Symons and David Matthau