NEW BRUNSWICK – New Brunswick’s school board president, who was given a “stern warning” about the indoor mask mandate in schools after not wearing one at an August board meeting, said the episode illustrates part of what is ridiculous about the state’s rules.

The school board meeting was held a week after the effective date of an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy reinstating a mask mandate in schools due to rising numbers of COVID infections caused by the virus’ delta variant, which followed months of saying that decision was going to made locally by districts.

School board president Dale Caldwell said he wore a mask into and out of the school but removed it while directing the meeting, which as an example is similar to how Murphy conducts coronavirus briefings that he holds at the Trenton War Memorial.

“We adhere to the governor’s mandates, and so I wear my mask,” Caldwell said. “But we have social distancing on the stage for our school board meeting, before school began, and I took my mask off so the audience could hear.”

“The prosecutor was in contact with our attorney and basically, obviously, thought it was ridiculous, but had to follow up and asked our attorney to give me a verbal reprimand because I had my mask off so the audience could hear – even though we were social distancing,” he said.

“It’s one of the ridiculousness, and that’s the challenge if you do an executive order to really put common sense on when it should be applied and not applied,” Caldwell said.

Charlie Kratovil, a journalist with New Brunswick Today and local political activist, complained to prosecutors that Caldwell had violated Murphy’s executive order. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office asked the New Brunswick school board attorney to convey “a direct and stern warning” to Caldwell, the office said in a letter to Kratovil reported by New Brunswick Today.

“The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office's approach to alleged executive order violations has been consistent throughout the pandemic and associated public health emergency,” said the letter. “That approach was to only charge violations of executive orders when in fact they were accompanied by independent acts of criminal conduct.

“If there were no independent acts of criminal conduct, the alleged violator would be given a direct and stern warning,” it said. “Moreover, if the conduct was in fact repeated, then a violation of the executive order would be charged, even in the absence of independent criminal conduct.”

Caldwell said he will wear a mask at future meetings.

“I will wear the mask going forward, but I think you’re allowed to sip water. So, I will drink water. I’ll take the mask off to drink water and then go back on,” he said. “But we need to put some common sense into mandates and make exceptions where it makes sense. And so, if the governor can do that, then a school board president should be able to do the same thing the governor does.”

The New Brunswick matter isn’t the first time that masks at school board meetings became an issue over the past month. In Barnegat, the head of the teachers’ union complained to police and prosecutors after four board members were maskless at a meeting. The Ramapo Indian Hills union issued a no-confidence vote in its school board president over the enforcement of the masking rule.

Caldwell has been on the New Brunswick school board for 23 years, and this is his third time as its president.

He is a professor and executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, was deputy commissioner in the state Department of Community Affairs from 2002 to 2005 and served on Murphy’s transition team that examined the state budget.

Caldwell said the mask mandate should make allowances for things such as physical distance and a person’s vaccination status, whether for visitors to school buildings or teachers themselves.

“Within CDC guidelines, if you’re socially distancing, why wouldn’t they allow that?” he said. “We should, within the CDC guidelines, allow people to behave appropriately and not make blanket mandates that people in power don’t have to adhere to and others have to.”

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“Certainly, if you’re not vaccinated the mandate makes sense, but to some extent,” he said. “It’s part of the problem with government. They assume everybody is bad until proven otherwise, and the challenge is I think more and more people would adhere to vaccinations and other things if things were done in a common-sense way. And so I think this is a perfect example of how the mask mandate can make sense, but there have to be CDC-based exceptions to it. And so, in the executive order, it should include that.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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