Despite a state-wide mask mandate ordered in August by Gov. Phil Murphy for all New Jersey schools, the West Milford Township Public Schools district was one of several school districts in the state reported to begin the first week of the school year with masks optional - due to expected “extreme heat” conditions in classrooms and other indoor spaces.
On Sept. 5, two days before the official first day of school for West Milford students, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Alex Anemone sent the following message to the school community:
“Governor Murphy, in Executive Order #251, required masks to be worn in all K-12 schools in New Jersey. One of the exemptions listed was for excessive heat. With the exception of offices and a few classrooms, our schools are not air conditioned and the forecast for the first week of school is hot and humid late summer weather.
“Accordingly, for the first week (September 7-10) of school, masks will be optional, but strongly encouraged, in our schools. As the weather changes and becomes cooler, this exemption will no longer be made available and the statewide mask mandate will be fully implemented. Our Transportation Department and schools will have masks available for students who need one.
“If there is a positive COVID case identified in one or more of our schools, we will initiate contact tracing.
“Although each contact tracing investigation is unique, it is possible to draw general conclusions about risk based on mitigating or aggravating factors such as vaccination status, wearing a mask, previous COVID infections, etc. Staff and students are more likely to be directed to quarantine if they are not wearing a mask, or are not fully vaccinated, or have not had a positive COVID test within the previous 90 days. Staff and students are less likely to be directed to quarantine if they are wearing a mask, or are fully vaccinated, or have had a recent positive COVID test within the previous 90 days.”
The “extreme heat” exemption for the mask mandate in schools was included in guidance documents for the reopening of schools. However, the state’s “extreme heat” exemption was not defined and no guidelines, recommendations or specific criteria were provided for school districts.
Change of forecast, change of plans
Following a change of forecasted weather, and visits to district school buildings by administrators on Sept. 7, Anemone sent an update to the school community later that afternoon, stating that masks would be required going forward:
“On Sunday afternoon, a notice was sent home regarding universal masking due to anticipated excessive heat in our schools. The original letter indicated that masks would be optional for this week. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps a shorter term would have been the more prudent course of action. Visits to multiple schools revealed a temperate classroom environment. A check of temperatures/ humidity levels for the rest of the week reveal a cooling trend that looks to continue into next week. Accordingly, our district will fully implement Governor Murphy’s Executive Order #251, beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, September 8. I apologize for the short notice; masks will be provided for students that are in need of one.
“Masks will be mandatory indoors, inclusive of our buses and classrooms. Thank you for your anticipated cooperation and, again, I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you and your families.”
Facing the issue at home
With all of the partisan persuasion tactics, lawsuits and conflicts regarding mask requirements nationwide, many parents are left confused and frustrated about how to proceed with the school year.
Meanwhile, parents and residents of West Milford Township also continue to debate the need for a mask mandate for school children.
Previously, parents who expressed concerns against school mask mandates circulated a petition, attended and spoke out at Board of Education meetings, and posted “Unmask Our Children” signs on lawns.
The ‘Mask Optional’ Petition
“We, the undersigned, concerned Parents, Grandparents and Citizens of West Milford, strongly believe that parents and guardians should maintain our rights to care for the medical needs of our own children the way we see fit. This includes OPTIONAL masking for children as determined by parents and guardians. We believe as data constantly is updated and changed, we as parents are in the best place to make the decision on whether our child should wear a mask in school.”
Parents who believe school mask mandates are necessary and should be followed by the school district without exception, circulated a petition of their own earlier this week, in opposition to the district’s planned use of the extreme heat exemption for the first week of school.
In their petition, it was stated that due to a loss of confidence in the decisions being made by the school board and administration regarding the mask mandates, “Starting with the September 21st meeting we will attend en masse in order to ensure that the voices of reason and safety are heard in this community.”
The ‘Masks Required’ Petition
“We are West Milford parents, students, and community members who express our disappointment and alarm at Dr. Anemone’s September 5 announcement of the suspension of the state mask mandate to start the school year on the basis of “excessive heat.” Temperatures are predicted to be in the 70s for the next week, with a high of 80. These conditions do not meet the standard of excessive heat by any standard, state or federal.
“For this reason and others, it is clear that Dr. Anemone’s decision is unlawful and directly violates the Governor’s Executive Order and guidance issued by the state Department of Health.
“We urge the Superintendent and the members of the Board of Education to immediately change course and bring the district back into compliance with state law.”
While the mask debates rage on, the WMTPS district will continue to comply fully with state mask mandates, and will update the school community about changes as they come about. Families of students with medical or other concerns related to the state mask mandates, should reach out to their school, counselors, and/or the School Board Central Office for guidance, assistance, or more information about state requirements for use of medical or other exemptions allowed under the law.