South Orange–Maplewood schools move to mask-optional format

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood School District announced March 10 that, as of the following Monday, March 14, face masks would be optional in K-12 schools, on school buses and in district office buildings. The district had originally announced on Feb. 22 that masks would remain required in school buildings, despite Gov. Phil Murphy announcing Feb. 7 that, as of March 7, the statewide mask mandate for public schools would no longer be in effect. Nevertheless, after reviewing updated guidance from the New Jersey Department of Health and consulting with local health departments, the SOMSD has decided to go “mask optional.”

“We want to thank our students, staff, and families for following our mitigation measures over the past year and a half,” the March 10 statement from the district read. “We know it has not been easy. Thanks to your efforts, we have been able to keep one another safe and continue with in-person learning. We also thank our staff, parent/guardian and student community for your responses to the ‘indoor mask option’ survey and for your patience and continued support as the district sought to implement the best decisions possible to keep our staff and student community safe.”

The district conducted a survey, which was made available to staff members; students at Maplewood Middle School, South Orange Middle School and Columbia High School; and parents/guardians in the district. The district received 4,420 responses: 419 from staff, 1,389 from students and 2,612 from parents/guardians.

The first question in the survey was: Do you think it’s time for SOMSD to make masks optional indoors? Among the staff, 53 percent responded yes, 32 percent responded no and 15 percent were unsure. Among the students, 49 percent responded yes, 35 percent responded no and 16 percent were unsure. Among the parents/guardians, 64 percent responded yes, 25 percent responded no and 11 percent were unsure.

The second question in the survey asked staff and students if they would still wear a mask, even if masking was optional. Among the staff, 43 percent responded yes, 35 percent responded no and 22 percent were unsure. Among the students, 47 percent responded yes, 21 percent responded no and 32 percent were unsure. Parents/guardians were asked if they would still have their children wear masks; 28 percent responded yes, 51 percent responded no and 21 percent were unsure.

The third survey question asked respondents: If the district were to make masks optional, are there situations in which masks should still remain mandatory? For the “in spaces that hold large indoor gatherings” option, 66 percent of staff said yes, 75 percent of students said yes and 51 percent of parents/guardians said yes. The remaining respondents in each category believe masks should be optional at all times.

Following the responses from the survey and recommendations from health professionals, the district will continue to require/request masking during large indoor gatherings, including, but not limited to, assemblies, plays, art shows and concerts; for individuals returning to school after COVID-19–positive isolation on days 6 through 10; and as recommended by the NJDOH should transmission rates increase.

Additionally, the mandates for pre-K students differ from those for the K-12 school setting. As per NJDOH guidelines and in consensus with local health departments, if a facility has a population of people who are ineligible to receive the vaccine, masks must continue to be worn. 

“We will continue to maintain a safe and thoughtful environment for all students and staff,” the district stated. “We ask that everyone respect one another’s decision, whether they choose to mask or not. In accordance with district policy, harassment, intimidation and bullying will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Anyone, including staff or students, who wish to continue wearing a mask will be supported in their choice of doing so. We will encourage our teachers to have conversations with their students around respecting each other’s personal choices.

“We encourage parents to discuss your family’s mask choice with your children, as staff will not be monitoring this,” the district continued. “Please put an extra mask in your child’s backpack for the times that they may need to wear them. Disposable masks will still be available in the main office of each school building.”