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Newark Public Schools drop mask requirement starting Sept. 12

A teacher works with a student at a table in a classroom. Both are wearing masks.

Starting Sept. 12, face masks will no longer be required in Newark Public Schools, New Jersey’s largest school district and one of the few nationwide that started the school year with a mandate in place.

Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

Newark Public Schools will go mask optional starting Monday, the district announced after the conclusion of the first week of school and following opposition from some families who became impatient with the ongoing mandate.

“Given our review of multiple indicators and with the advice of the Newark Health Department and our healthcare partners this evening, the mask mandate is lifted beginning Monday,” the district announced in a post on Friday evening on its Facebook page. “Masks are now optional in our schools and facilities.”

The district of 38,000 students was likely one of the last in New Jersey to start the new academic year with the mandate in place after most districts went optional in the spring, when Gov. Phil Murphy ended the school and daycare mask requirement.

Superintendent Roger León and school board members previously said the district’s mandate had stayed in place due to advice from the city’s health department that took into account COVID-19 trends and immunizations in the city.

On Saturday, Newark had 119 new COVID-19 cases, the Essex County dashboard showed. That was more than two times the number of cases the city reported on Sept. 1, before the school year began.

Meanwhile, the rate for at least one dose of the vaccine among 5- to 11-year-olds in the city went up in the last week from 37% to 38%, according to the state’s COVID dashboard. The rate stayed the same at 38% for 12- to 17-year-olds, the state’s dashboard shows.

“The NTU is cautiously optimistic about the lifting of the mask mandate,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, in a statement on Sunday. “As long as the health officials believe it is safe to do so, we welcome the decision.”

District staff and teachers, as well as students, can still opt to wear face masks.

“We are reminding our members that optional means common sense decision-making,” Abeigon said. “We are not all the same and we’re advising them to make the decision to wear a mask or not upon their personal health and comfort level.”

Communication about the change to mask rules seemed to be scant as of Sunday morning.

The district had posted the announcement on its Instagram page, but not on Twitter. On the district’s main website, as of Sunday morning, there were no clear announcements or banners about the change in face mask rules. In a search through district school websites, no communication to families via letters seemed to be available.

Families received a robo-call with the announcement from the district Friday evening, a few parents said.

For some families, the news of the switch to an optional approach was too little, too late.

Anna Da Silva removed her six-year-old daughter from Ironbound Academy Elementary School, a new K-4 school in the East Ward, after learning she wouldn’t be exempted from the mask mandate even though masks trigger a skin infection on her face. On the second day of school last week, Da Silva filed official forms to disenroll her child, saying she wouldn’t put up with another school year of her daughter being uncomfortable.

“My daughter already lost four days of school,” Da Silva said on Sunday. “On Friday, all of a sudden, nobody has to wear a mask? What changed in four days? This is reactive from the superintendent and an injustice.”

The district kept face mask rules in place through summer programming and into the first week of school, which started Sept. 6. The ongoing mask rules made Newark an outlier in the state and nationwide, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had eased most of its recommended school protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, including masking in low-risk communities. 

On Sunday, Essex County was still considered a low-risk area for COVID-19 transmission, according to the federal county tracker

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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