Cascone assures that West Orange schools will take time to consider thoughtful mask policy

Superintendent Scott Cascone discusses the end of the statewide mask mandate at the Board of Education meeting on Monday, Feb. 7.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone discussed the end of the state mask mandate in schools at the West Orange Board of Education meeting on Monday, Feb. 7, saying that the district will not make knee-jerk decisions and will use corresponding local health guidelines to decide whether or not to implement its own mandate. Gov. Phil Murphy announced Feb. 7 that the statewide mandate would end on Monday, March 7, citing falling case numbers of COVID-19.

“I must thank the overwhelming majority of students, parents, administrators, educators and support staffers who have worn their masks without problem or protest since our schools reopened for in-person learning. Thankfully, we have reached a point where we feel confident that we can take another step toward normalcy for our kids,” Murphy said in the announcement. “Given the continued drop in new cases and hospitalizations, projections indicating a continued decline over the coming weeks, and the continued growth of vaccinations for our school-aged population, we believe that we can responsibly end the universal mask mandate.”

The state guidelines say that school districts and other child care facilities can choose to implement a masking policy after the mandate is lifted; those who do not should revise their COVID-19 policies to utilize masking and other virus-prevention strategies. Schools will not be permitted to bar the use of facial coverings. According to Murphy’s announcement, the state Department of Health will release guidelines to help school districts update their mask policies.

“The department will develop guidance that incorporates all aspects of safety in schools while children are unmasked,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said in the announcement. “We know that every parent wants to do what’s best for their children.”

Cascone said the district administration would be providing updates on an ongoing basis over the next several weeks about any decisions that are made and thanked Murphy for the month’s notice before the mandate ends.

“I want to thank the governor for providing us with a month to prepare and to do the research and have the conversations that are necessary in making a decision like this on such a critical matter, on which there are very different opinions,” he said. “Certainly, I can assure the board and the community that we’ll be providing updates on an ongoing basis as to the status of those conversations and ultimately the position that the board and the district take.”

LMani Viney, a parent in the district, asked that the district keep the mask mandate through the rest of the school year when he spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“We do not know the impact on overworked nurses regarding contact tracing,” Viney said. “Now, if you go maskless, nurses have to contact trace students sitting in a class maskless, figure out who’s vaccinated, who has boosters, and so forth and so on. That’s including everything else a nurse has to deal with.”

He pointed out that dropping the mask mandate and allowing students and staff not to wear them while in school could be traumatic for teachers.

“We’re going to go from a year and a half where teachers were comfortably and safely seeing students all wearing masks to now putting teachers in front of 20, 26 students per class not wearing masks, with everyone breathing right in front of them,” Viney said. “Have we thought about that, as well as older teachers and teachers who are immunocompromised? What about students who are immunocompromised? We should not underestimate the impact of trauma.”

Two variants have been blamed for pushing back the end of the pandemic: the delta variant last summer and omicron during the last several months. Viney said another variant could begin to spread at any time, and the mask mandate will have to be reimplemented.

“We’ve been here before,” he said. “We’ve seen numbers go down, and, all of a sudden, variants come out of nowhere. How do we know that, come March, we drop this mask mandate, and another variant comes that’s far more transmissible? We don’t know.”

Cascone said the district would discuss options in the next several weeks.

“This is new news today,” he said of Murphy announcing the cancellation of the mask mandate. “We’re going to process it and discuss it inclusively, and not make our decisions in a fly-by-night fashion. I’m thankful that we have some time.”