Some of New Jersey’s youngest children are still mandated to wear face masks while in preschool classes.
Many children under the age of 5 who attend the federally run Head Start program and preschoolers in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and the Maplewood YMCA must continue to wear masks indoors, even as temperatures continue to rise.
Maya Ziobro said she finds her 3-year-old daughter, who attends a public preschool in the South Orange-Maplewood district, with a red and flushed face from wearing a mask when she picks her up on hot afternoons. The very young children don’t always wear masks correctly, and her daughter’s is often below her nose, Ziobro said about their effectiveness.
“She’s confused and keeps it on outside a lot of the time because she does not want to get into trouble,” said Ziobro.
While the district lifted the mask mandate for its older students along with most state schools in spring, it retained the mandate for its preschool students. The decision created strife among parents, many of whom voted against masking their preschool-aged children in a school survey. Last week they received a letter from the district informing them the mandate would remain in place until June 24, the end of the school year.
The district said it sent the letter to bring “closure” to the issue, which has dominated recent school board meetings and divided parents. The letter went out a day after New York City, the country’s largest public school district, lifted its mask mandate.
Gov. Phil Murphy ended the COVID-19 public health emergency on Feb. 7 as infections from the omicron variant of the coronavirus began to decline. He lifted the school mask mandate on March 7, leaving individual school districts to make masks optional or compulsory depending on COVID levels in the community.
A number of North Jersey Head Start preschools, including Wayne and Ringwood, also still mandate masks. When contacted by phone on Tuesday, the schools confirmed their programs require preschoolers to wear masks while indoors.
The Head Start preschools geared toward low-income families, also mandate unvaccinated teachers to wear masks indoors and in school vehicles.
A Head Start spokesperson said the federal program recommends that its preschool students and teachers wear masks to diminish the spread of the virus, but ultimately it is up to the independently run centers. The executive director of North Jersey’s Head Start program at the Center for Family Resources did not respond to an email asking about its policy at the time of writing.
High COVID activity levels in Essex County and toddlers’ ineligibility for vaccinations drove the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s decision, stated the letter to parents. Children ages 2-5 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Teacher’s health plan:New state teachers’ health plan didn’t deliver promised savings, say school districts
Monmouth County, followed by Bergen and Essex counties had the highest daily case numbers for June 13 according to the state COVID dashboard.
Federal approval for vaccines for children below the age of 5 is expected this week. In the meantime, New Jersey has pre-ordered 51,000 doses of the vaccine for that age group.
There have been no deaths reported in children ages 2 to 5 in New Jersey from COVID-19 since December 2021. Two children in that age group died from the virus or related causes in 2020, out of 45,223 confirmed cases since the onset of the pandemic. There have been 17 pediatric deaths in New Jersey from the coronavirus, according to a spokesperson from the state Department of Health.
For all these reasons, South Orange-Maplewood schools’ decision to keep toddlers masked makes the district an outlier in New Jersey. Most of the state’s 599 districts adopted mask-optional policies after the mask mandate ended in early March.
Ziobro said the masks cause a number of issues for her daughter. She has “potty accidents” from not being able to communicate clearly with her teacher in a mask.
“She’s lucky she doesn’t have a speech delay,” said Ziobro. “I know a lot of her peers are struggling in that department. You’re 3, I cannot imagine that [masking] does not have some sort of effect on this age group.”
South Orange-Maplewood’s mandate was in place outdoors and in playgrounds until March, said Ziobro.
In Garfield, on the other hand, school district officials said they are glad they lifted the mandate in spring, as it was a positive move for its preschool students. Socially and academically, the children have done well since the mandate was lifted, said Jeff Wilson, principal of Washington Irving School #4.
“Overall, giving parents the choice has been very successful for our school,” Wilson said. “In our Pre-K classes, the most positive impact has been on students’ and teachers’ ability to communicate,” he said via email.
Students learn sounds not only by listening, but by watching their teachers form letter sounds. Wilson said he’s seen an improvement in social interaction too, which was hindered by masks.
Teachers spent a lot of time “helping replace soiled masks and helping [the children] clean themselves,” which takes away from the curriculum, and could place teachers in closer contact to germs, he said.
The South Orange-Maplewood District Board of Education surveyed parents of preschoolers in April. Only 122 families responded, less than half of the total preschool population, said Superintendent Ronald Taylor. Of those, 60% favored optional masking, while 35% favored a mask mandate and 5% were unsure.
“As we stated in our communication, we knew that some in our community would be disappointed and that is of course never our goal. As you can imagine we have also heard from parents who are relieved that this mitigation will still be in place for the last few days of the school year,” Taylor said in an email. He said the district’s health department supported the mandate.
Stacey Saenz, a post-doctoral student in public health in SUNY Downstate has a 2-year-old son who is not yet enrolled in the preschool. She supports keeping the preschool mask mandate until a vaccine is available for the age group.
“I just don’t see the issue with waiting until that is available for them.” She said she agrees that COVID does not make young children severely ill, but does not support exposing a single vulnerable child to the illness nonetheless. “Intubating a toddler seems much more uncomfortable than masking them.”
“We’re not anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers. We just want to have the choice for our kids. We don’t see the point of these restrictions continuing at this stage,” said Ziobro, who is vaccinated.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend that anyone 2 and older wear face masks outside their home when community transmission levels are high. Schools may, however, remove prevention methods, which include masks, one at a time when transmission levels are decreasing, the CDC said in its latest guidance updated on May 27. The World Health Organization does not recommend masking children under 5.
Infections with the omicron variant were usually less severe in infants and toddlers, according to a brief published by the PolicyLab at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital in January. The lab has said that it is “reasonable” to make masks optional in early childhood care settings. “Transmission risk I think is comparable among all children, whether vaccinated or not,” said the lab’s director and pediatrician, Dr. David Rubin. “We should be encouraging vaccination because of the likelihood of reducing severe disease,” he said.
A school-wide mask mandate remains in place in neighboring Newark, whose 41,000 students are mostly urban and low-income. With 77% qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Newark’s student population fits a different profile from most of suburban South Orange-Maplewood’s 294 toddlers.
Paterson and East Orange school districts, both mostly low-income and urban centers, lifted their mask mandates in early May. COVID-19 has had a disproportionately severe impact on low-income communities of color, studies have shown.
Some state school districts, including Montclair and South Orange-Maplewood temporarily reinstated mask mandates in May and June when COVID infections began to spike from a variant of Omicron. Despite those surging infections, severe illness and death are relatively low in New Jersey, where 76% of residents are fully vaccinated.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey’s schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.