South Brunswick High School in Middlesex County, NJ, announced that masks in classrooms are again mandatory starting Friday and will be required through next week to help stem the spread of the coronavirus amid a significant spike in cases. The move signals a possible resumption of mitigation strategies in schools as the highly contagious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron spreads across the country.
The high school also let students off early Friday to avoid crowding in the cafeteria during lunchtime. Superintendent Scott Feder said in a letter to parents and staff that the school has “identified the root cause of the outbreak” and expects the early release and mask-wearing “will allow us to maintain our normal routines.”
Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who himself tested positive for the coronavirus this week and is isolating, lifted the mask mandate for schools starting March 7, but local counties can enforce individual mandates.
New Jersey’s coronavirus cases are up 45 percent from the daily average two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database.
The debate about masks in schools is complicated by competing legitimate interests. Doctors say removing masks puts immunocompromised or disabled students at increased risk and may affect their classroom experience. But experts say there is also harm in keeping students in masks for long periods of time, although that harm is more difficult to measure.
South Brunswick’s decision comes as New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city would maintain its school mask mandate for children under 5 who are too young to be vaccinated due to rising cases.
It also follows similar guidelines from Milburn High School in Essex County, NJ, which is also responding to a recent outbreak of 74 positive cases. The Superintendent, Dr. Christine Burton, wrote to parents and families on Thursday, recommending that masks be worn on Friday and Monday, although the school may consider expanding this requirement. A classroom with five cases was moved to virtual classes for both days.
South Brunswick will “reassess the need for masks” after next week.
“We will follow the data and expect a steady decline in cases and then return to a mask-optional environment,” Mr Feder said in an email. “We have kept our schools open and have no plans to move to a virtual environment.”