Students in the Paterson School District must continue to wear face masks following a vote by school board members Wednesday night, but the district will remove desk partitions.
The decision for the fourth-largest district in the state with 25,000 students came two days after the statewide mask mandate for schools, childcare centers, as well as school buses ended. Districts, however, have the option to keep local mask mandates and no district can ban face coverings.
Superintendent Eileen Shafer said she supported keeping the mandate until at least two weeks after spring break, which takes place toward the end of April. She told parents in a letter Wednesday night that the district will revisit its face mask policy in early May.
“We have classrooms that exceed 24 students in a class (and) we’re using 3 feet for social distance … at this particular time and with the holidays coming up, spring break and Easter and (we know) people will gather, I think it’s prudent for us to wait for two weeks after spring break and then if the numbers continue to go down and things continue to go the way they’re going right now, then the masks can be optional,” Shafer said during Wednesday night’s meeting.
Shafer also cited the 27% vaccination rate among Paterson children ages 5-11. The superintendent said as of Friday 86% of school district staff members are fully vaccinated, as well as 85% of 12-17-year-old’s in the city of Paterson.
“The Board of Education has come to their decisions after long and careful consideration,” Shafer said in statement after Wednesday’s board meeting. “They have considered the scientific data, the input from many stakeholders, and the latest guidance from public health officials.”
While face masks will continue to be required in Paterson, the district said it will end the use of partitions in school buildings starting Thursday. The partitions were attached to desks in classrooms and elsewhere, a tool used in combatting COVID-19 spread but one that was not required by the state. About 63% of district employees and parents responding to a survey supported eliminating the partitions.
“The partitions currently in use will be gathered by classroom teachers, labelled with teachers’ names and room numbers, and collected by schools’ chief custodians,” the school said in a statement, noting that the partitions will be stored for possible future-use.
COVID-19 cases have fallen in the Paterson school district over the past few weeks — with 40 confirmed positive cases among staff and students reported the week of Jan. 31; 24 cases the week of Feb. 7; 18 cases the week of Feb. 14; and 10 cases the week of Feb. 28.
“Everyone who enters schools and other buildings in our district will abide by the board’s carefully-made decisions on masks and partitions, and we will continue to take the other precautions against the spread of the COVID-19 virus including frequent hand-washing, social distancing, temperature scanning, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home when sick,” Shafer said.
The Paterson school district relied on virtual learning for all students until the last two weeks of the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and spent nearly $20 million on improving air filtration and other safety measures.
Recently-updated CDC guidance indicated that face masks were no longer needed based on declining case figures.
Rob Jennings contributed to this report.
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