Frustrated parents call on Murphy to end any mask mandates

Frustrated parents call on Murphy to end any mask mandates in New Jersy schools. A handful of frustrated parents told Republican state lawmakers Friday it’s time to end coronavirus mask mandates in New Jersey schools, saying the rules have harmed their children physically and mentally.

The comments were part of a virtual hearing hosted by Republican leaders of the Democratic-controlled state Assembly.

In the event’s most emotional moment, Brienne Zilinski of Middletown said she has three daughters with speech disorders, and they rely on reading the tongues and lips of their teachers and classmates.

She then played a recording of her daughter crying after she came home one day from kindergarten, saying she had headaches and couldn’t hear her friend.

“We’ve had enough,” Zilinski told the lawmakers.

The debate over masks in schools has intensified in recent weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the state’s mask mandate in most public places as vaccinations continue to help quell the pandemic. But he kept face covering requirements in place in schools, among a few other places.

After Friday’s hearing, Alyana Alfaro Post, a spokeswoman for the governor, emphasized the state’s mask rules in schools are based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has called for COVID-19 “prevention strategies” such as masking to remain in place for at least the remainder of this school year because children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccines.

This past Monday, as a heat wave gripped the state, Murphy noted his orders allow New Jersey school districts to make masks optional if temperatures cause concerns.

Multiple districts proceeded to announce they would make masks optional while students are seated in classrooms for the remainder of the school year, regardless of the weather. Most districts are in their final weeks of classes.

On Wednesday, Murphy clarified that school districts can make their own decisions, especially during extreme heat or because of other health reasons — though he stressed they shouldn’t ditch masks completely.

“I think we’re gonna leave it to the judgment of the district, but what we’re not saying is you can take your mask off forever and always,” Murphy said during his latest COVID-19 briefing in Trenton. “We are saying that if it’s a particular health reason — and extreme heat is one of them — that would cause a health risk for kids or educators or staff, they have the right to make that decision locally.”

“Use your responsibility wisely,” the governor added. “Do the right thing.”

Murphy said officials “want to get to the place sooner or later where our kids aren’t wearing masks.”

“There’s no underlying reason we want that to continue,” he said. “We continue to make these decisions based on CDC guidance.”

Some parents and Republicans have blasted Murphy, a Democrat running for re-election this year, for keeping children in masks, especially when they don’t have to wear them at other public places. They also note that it’s far less likely for children to contract severe cases of the virus.

Dozens of parents held a rally at the Statehouse in Trenton on Friday to protest Murphy’s executive orders over COVID-19 and call on him to “unmask our children.”

In New Jersey, seven children under 18 have died from COVID-19 during the outbreak out of more than 26,300 deaths. But officials have stressed that children can still pass the virus to older and more vulnerable people.

New Jersey has reported 281 in-school coronavirus outbreaks, which have resulted in 1,263 COVID-19 cases among students, teachers and school staff this academic year, according to state data. That’s out of more than 889,000 cases the state has reported overall.

“Every day when I drop my child off at school and watch him and all the children running around with masks on their faces, it breaks my heart,” Christine Bidner, a retired elementary school teacher, said during Friday’s hearing.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said he held the hearing to give people a voice on masks.

“I believe there’s a real pandemic here,” Bramnick said. “But I also believe the public should speak.”

The hearing did not include testimony from health officials and others who advocate for continued mask rules at school. Bramnick said no one supporting face coverings signed up to speak Friday. But he told the Associated Press he was willing to hold another hearing next week to hear from them.

In addition to Murphy, all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot this year.

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