South Brunswick High School, in Middlesex County, N.J., announced that beginning on Friday masks again became mandatory in classrooms and will be required through next week in order to curb the spread of coronavirus during a significant spike of cases. The move signals a potential resumption of mitigation strategies in schools as the highly contagious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron spreads across the country.
The high school also dismissed students early on Friday to avoid crowding in the cafeteria during lunchtime. Superintendent Scott Feder said in a letter to parents and staff that the school has “identified the root cause of the outbreak” and expect the early release and the wearing of masks will “allow us to maintain our normal routines.”
Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who tested positive for the coronavirus himself this week and is isolating, lifted the mask mandate for schools beginning on March 7, but local districts are able to enforce individual mandates.
Coronavirus cases in New Jersey have increased by 45 percent from the daily average two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database.
The debate about masks in schools is complicated by competing legitimate interests. Doctors say that removing masks puts immunocompromised or disabled students at an increased risk, and may inhibit their classroom experience. But experts say keeping students in masks for extended periods of time also inflicts harm, even if that harm is more difficult to measure.
The decision from South Brunswick coincides with the announcement from New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, that, because of rising cases, the city would keep its school mask mandate in place for children under 5, who are too young to be vaccinated.
It also follows similar guidance from Milburn High School, in Essex County, N.J. — which is also responding to a recent outbreak of 74 positive cases. The superintendent, Dr. Christine Burton, wrote to parents and families on Thursday recommending that masks be worn on Friday and Monday, though the school may consider extending that requirement. One classroom with five cases was moved to virtual instruction for both days.
South Brunswick will “re-evaluate the need for masks” after next week.
“We will follow the data and expect to see a steady decline in cases and then move back to a mask-optional environment,” said Mr. Feder in an email. “We have kept our schools open and have no plans to move to a virtual environment.”