Face masks are now optional in the Paterson public school district.
The Paterson school board voted 6-1 Wednesday night to end the local requirement, more than two months after Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the statewide requirement for masks in school buildings to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The change in Paterson, which took took effect Thursday morning, comes amid a rise of coronavirus cases in New Jersey. State health officials on Thursday reported 12 COVID-19 deaths and 4,551 new confirmed positive tests, the most new daily cases since Jan. 29.
It left Newark as the last remaining large school district with a mask requirement. East Orange made masks optional at schools on May 9. New Brunswick lifted its local school district mandate on May 2.
The resolution adopted by the Paterson school board authorizes Superintendent Eileen Shafer to reinstate the local mandate “at any time.”
Shafer spoke in support of making masks optional prior to the board’s vote.
“We said that two weeks after the spring break we were going to look at it again,” Shafer said, referencing her prior opposition to ending the local mandate.
“The district (COVID-19) cases right now are less than one case per school, per week, but we do have up to 8 in a given school. Then we have some schools that do not have any positive cases,” Shafer said.
“I am recommending to the board that we have the masks to be optional. Anyone who wants to wear a mask may wear a mask, but it is not required,” Shafer said.
Paterson school board member Jonathan Hodges, before casting the lone dissenting vote, asked Shafer if she had consulted with St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in preparing her recommendation.
Shafer said she had not, but had spoken with Paterson’s health officer, Thakur “Paul” Persaud, and that he agreed with making masks optional in the schools.
She also acknowledged the rising case numbers, in New York and New Jersey, and that COVID-19 vaccination rates for students ages 5 to 11 — in response to another question from Hodges — were between 30 and 40 percent.
Hodges said he remained “personally concerned.”
“It’s not really a sound medical approach, optional masks, when you have an increasing condition,” Hodges said.
Newark Schools Superintendent Roger León told NJ Advance Media on Friday that there is no set date for making masks optional in his district, which enrolls approximately 38,000 students.
“Since the start of this global pandemic, we have implemented strict COVID-19 district protocols, procedures, and other precautionary measures. In consultation with and based on guidance received from the Newark Health Department, the ingress and egress procedures and masks requirements will remain in effect at this time,” León said in a written statement provided by the district’s spokesperson.
“We will continue to monitor multiple factors in our ongoing fight against the coronavirus and collaborate with our public health partners as we have done from the start. As soon as it is safe and appropriate to discontinue any or all of the protocols, procedures, and mask requirements, we will communicate that to students, parents, and the community,” León said.
With 25,000 students, Paterson has the fourth-highest student enrollment in New Jersey. The school district relied on virtual learning for all students until the last two weeks of the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic and spent nearly $20 million on improving air filtration and other safety measures.
One member of the public spoke briefly in favor of lifting masks at the 52-minute school board meeting on Wednesday. It was conducted virtually, as have all school board meetings in Paterson since the start of the pandemic.
Shafer said at the meeting that 89 percent of district employees and 82 percent of students, between ages 11 and 17, have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
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