Gov. Phil Murphy (299093)
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s governor announced plans Monday to lift the statewide mask requirement in schools a month from now because of the rapid easing of COVID-19’s omicron surge, calling the move “a huge step back to normalcy for our kids.”

Individual school districts will be free to continue requiring masks after the state mandate ends March 7, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said.

New Jersey is one of a dozen states with mask mandates in schools, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. New Jersey’s has been in place since classes resumed in person in September 2020.

The state’s decision comes as omicron wanes across the U.S. and state and local governments grapple with which COVID-19 restrictions to jettison and which ones to keep in place. It also comes amid a growing sense that the virus is never going to go away and Americans need to find a way to coexist with it.

Also on Monday, Delaware Gov. John Carney said his state’s school mask mandate will stay in effect until March 31. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she is reviewing the numbers and did not announce any change in the state’s requirement.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said universal mask-wearing in schools “still remains our recommendation,” but she did not fault states for dropping the requirement.

“It’s always been up to school districts. That’s always been our point of view and always been our policy from here,” she said.

Murphy cited the “dramatic decline in our COVID numbers” in announcing the rollback. The omicron variant fueled a spike in infections over the holidays, but cases in the state are down 50% and hospitalizations dropped off by one-third since last week, he said.

“We are not — and I’ve said this many times — going to manage COVID to zero,” the governor said. “We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to an endemic phase of this virus.”

The debate over masks in schools has been polarizing in much of the U.S., with parents protesting at school board meetings and slates of candidates — pro- and anti-mask — seeking school board seats in an attempt to shape policies.

Eight Republican-led states, including Florida and Texas, have bans on school mask mandates, though some have been suspended amid legal fights with districts and parents who want to require masks, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

In Illinois, where a judge last week struck down Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide school mask mandate, the Democratic attorney general said Monday he will appeal the ruling. The Chicago school system, where teachers recently refused to hold in-person classes until an agreement was reached on safety measures, including providing KN95 masks to students and staff, said the ruling doesn’t apply and the nation’s third-largest district will continue to require masks.

Murphy faced pressure from Republicans and some parents who have held rallies at the statehouse demanding an end to the mandate. But the governor has had support for the mask rule from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union.

“This is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids,” the governor said.

In a statement, the union noted that trends show COVID-19 heading in the right direction, and added: “It is appropriate for Gov. Murphy to allow local districts to continue to require masking in communities where that is prudent based on local conditions.”

Nationwide, new COVID-19 cases per day have plunged by more than a half-million since mid-January, when they hit a record-shattering peak of more than 800,000. Cases have been declining in 47 states over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Also, the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen 24% since mid-January to about 111,000.

Deaths are still running high at more than 2,400 per day on average, the most since last winter, reflecting a lag between when victims become infected and when they die.

In New Jersey, it is unclear how many and how soon the state’s 600-plus school districts might end the wearing of masks.

In Paterson, the state’s third-biggest city, the school system will take time to consult with administration officials, principals, parents and staff, said district spokesperson Paul Brubaker.

Melissa Alfieri-Collins, a mother of two who disagrees with mask mandates in schools, saying she prefers “choice,” called the governor’s decision good news. But she raised concern that districts might keep mask rules in place.

“For this reason, parents need an opt-out option for when and if districts do this,” she said.

Stephen White, a 55-year-old father of a 14-year-old son, said that if the lifting of the mandate were to take effect immediately, he wouldn’t be in favor of it. But four weeks from now is a different story.

“By that time period, if the rates are going down and they can say that ‘OK, kids are vaccinated’ — if they have a substantial amount of kids that are vaccinated — I don’t have a problem with them not wearing a mask at school,” he said.

Francis Amegah, a 63-year-old with two children in the Newark school district, said the end of the mandate is “well overdue.”

“They shouldn’t be wearing masks. If something happens, we’ll be able to handle that. The parents should be able to take care of that,” he said.

Republicans claimed responsibility for pushing the governor to end the mandate.

“Gov. Murphy will never admit that the pressure is getting to him, but it absolutely is,” GOP Senate Leader Steve Oroho said.

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Associated Press writer Sara Burnett in Chicago and video journalist Ted Shaffrey in Montclair, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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