In what could prove to be a major step toward shifting the country from a pandemic phase to an endemic one, four states led by Democratic governors announced Monday they are lifting their statewide school mask mandates.

What You Need To Know

  • Four states led by Democratic governors announced Monday they are lifting their statewide school mask mandates

  • New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and Oregon said they will lift mask requirements in schools in the coming weeks

  • Massachusetts followed suit on Wednesday, announcing that its school mask mandate would be lifted on Feb. 28; While led by a Republican governor, the state skews largely Democratic and boasts a robust vaccination rate

  • The CDC still recommends that children 2 and older be masked in school, and the White House said Monday it believes there is more work to be done to drive down cases

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, known for implementing some of the nation’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions, said his state’s new policy will take effect March 7, nearly two full years after New Jersey and New York became the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the U.S. 

Delaware Gov. John Carney said he, too, will lift his state’s school mask requirement, effective April 1. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said he is recommending an Feb. 28 end to mask mandates there. And the Oregon Health Authority said it will drop mask requirements by March 31, possibly sooner depending on the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Delaware and Oregon also announced plans to rescind their broader public indoor mask requirements. New Jersey and Connecticut had already done so. California said Monday it is lifting its state mask mandate next week, but not for schoolchildren. 

Massachusetts followed suit on Wednesday, with Gov. Charlie Baker announcing that the state's school mask mandate would be lifted on Feb. 28. While Massachusetts has a Republican executive, the state skews largely Democratic, and boasts a robust vaccination rate.

“With Massachusetts a national leader in vaccinating kids, combined with our robust testing programs, it is time to lift the mask mandate in schools and give students and staff a sense of normalcy after dealing with enormous challenges over the past two years,” Gov. Baker, a Republican, announced Wednesday. “We have all the tools to keep schools safe as we move into dealing with the next phase of managing COVID.”

Baker said Massachusetts currently ranks second in the nation with the highest share of kids vaccinated.

“We understand many students will continue to wear masks going forward for a number of reasons and we fully support those individual decisions,” Gov. Baker said. “And we would urge everyone in K-12 education to do the same.”

New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware said school districts will have the option of continuing with their own mask requirements. Oregon says its health officials will work with the state Education Department to revise guidance for schools. 

“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from omicron and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” Murphy said during a COVID-19 news briefing. “And we are also buoyed by the continued growth in vaccinations and the expectation that the vaccines will be made available to children under the age of 5 in early March.”

New Jersey has seen an 89% decrease in new daily infections since Jan. 10 — down from nearly 32,000 a day to around 3,400, according to CDC data. The state has the second lowest per-capita rate of new COVID-19 infections in the country, trailing only Maryland.

Delaware has seen cases fall by 85% since Jan. 14, and Connecticut by 86% since Jan. 10. COVID-19 infections in Oregon, which hit its omicron peak later than Northeastern states, are down 56% since Jan. 24. 

Nationwide, cases have fallen from more than 800,000 a day in mid-January to less than 300,000 a day. But the latest seven-day average of 291,471 is still higher than any point of the pandemic prior to the omicron surge.

After he and other governors met with President Joe Biden at the White House last week, Murphy said both Republican and Democratic state executives were eager to see the country transition away from its pandemic policies. 

“We're not going to manage COVID to zero,” he said Monday. “We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to the endemic phase of this virus. To sure, we've known this for a long time. And we are optimistic that given the decreased severity of this new variant and the continued increase in vaccinations that we are finally nearing this inflection point.”

Murphy said ending the mask requirement in schools “is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids.”

Monday’s announcements in blue states could signal a larger change in attitudes about the virus. Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, rescinded his state’s mask requirement. And the Democratic governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, says she is reevaluating its mandates. 

Carney said in a statement Monday that Delaware is “in a much better place than we were several weeks ago.”

“I want to be clear about this point — COVID is still circulating in our communities, and the virus still poses a risk of serious illness, particularly among those who are not up to date on their vaccinations,” he said. “But we have the tools to keep ourselves and each other safe. Get vaccinated. Get your booster.”

Carney also announced he is lifting Delaware’s mask mandate in other public, indoor locations starting Friday. 

Connecticut’s mask mandate for schools is set to expire Feb. 15, but Lamont is asking for a two-week extension to allow officials more time to monitor cases for another possible spike and allow schools to use the winter break to better prepare for the change.

“Connecticut is seeing a dramatic decline in cases caused by the Omicron variant, and children over the age of 5 have had the ability to get vaccinated for more than three months now,” Lamont said in a statement. “With this in mind, I think we are in a good position to phase out the requirement that masks be worn in all schools statewide and shift the determination on whether to require this to the local level.”

Mask mandates in schools have been an extremely polarizing issue across the country. The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics still recommend that all students age 2 and older wear masks, with both citing studies showing that masks help prevent in-school transmission. 

But parents, sometimes in heated exchanges at school board meetings, have argued they should have the freedom to decide whether their children wear face coverings to school, and some doctors say masks are taking a toll on children’s mental health.

Most states have already shed their school mask requirements, some long ago. According to the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities, 13 states and the District of Columbia still have mandates; 11 of those states have Democratic governors.

Asked whether the shift from Democratic governors was a sign the country is ready for new federal pandemic strategy, the White House spokeswoman said the Biden administration believes there is more work to be done to drive down cases.

"We certainly don't see this moment now as the new normal," said press secretary Jen Psaki. "We want to get to a point where we are not, where COVID is not, disrupting our daily lives."

Psaki also said mask guidelines have always been up to states and localities, but the CDC still recommends using masks to slow COVID-19 transmission. She said the White House was frequently in touch with public health experts monitoring progress in the pandemic.

"We certainly understand and have seen in polling that the public is tired of COVID. We understand that. So are we," she said. "And there (have) been some good signs recently, where there has been a decrease in hospitalizations around the country."

Spectrum News' Austin Landis contributed to this report.


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