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At Phil Murphy’s press briefing Wednesday (where questions focused on gubernatorial challenger Jack Ciatarelli’s claim that Murphy tolerated a “frat-boy” culture during the 2017 campaign that led to the sexual abuse of Katie Brennan by Murphy-appointee Al Alvarez), the Governor was asked whether there was a chance schools would return to remote instruction due to increasing rates of the Delta variant of COVID-19. New Jersey’s seven-day average for newly confirmed positive tests is 1,703, which is slightly higher than a week ago and 74% higher than this time last month
Murphy replied that it was “unlikely” that he would order remote learning and would only do so if there was a “dramatic outbreak of some sort.”
He may be missing the point. The COVID-19 of March 2020 is not the COVID-19 of September 2021. As the New York Times notes, the Delta variant is getting more young kids “seriously sick” than previous variants; this particular coronavirus mutation is about twice as infectious as others and a study found that it is more likely to lead to hospitalizations among children. There’s also the alarming trend of children stricken with the current version of COVID getting “long COVID,” even if their original infections are mild or asymptomatic. Also, according to this Gallup poll, 46% of parents don’t plan on having their kids vaccinated even after the FDA approves a vaccine for children under 12.
In other words, the way we handled COVID in schools last Spring– before the prevalence of the pre-Delta variant– may not be appropriate for how we handle COVID in schools right now. At the very least, Murphy’s inflexibility about in-person instruction appears dismissive towards some New Jersey parents’ personal calculus of risk for their children.
During the press briefing, reporters also asked him how serious he was about the mask mandate. (Hirsh Singh, who is primarying Ciatarelli, claims mandating masks in schools is “child abuse” and a Burlington County resident says vaccine and mask mandates constitute an “abuse of power.”)
Murphy says he is quite serious. While exceptions to mask and vaccine mandates are permitted for certain medical conditions, “this is not mom or dad writing a note saying Johnny or Sally doesn’t want to wear one.”
He accurately added that most districts are complying with his Executive Orders.
What seems to get lost in the passionate, and at times angry, debate over masks in schools is that it’s unknown how long it will last. The school year is almost 10 months long and it’s hard to see the mandate lasting even half that long. The governor has made the point that a mask mandate can instantly disappear, but in a polarized environment, nuance is lost. Still, Murphy went there again today, saying that the school mask mandate is unlikely to be ‘forever and always.’
“In a polarized environment, nuance is lost.” That aphorism can be as true for mandates requiring masks for all children as for mandates requiring in-school instruction for all children. It’s complicated because parents’ rights over their children’s health and education aren’t unlimited. The government mandates car seats; the government forbids child abuse. The trick is finding that fine balance between parent autonomy and child protection and it’s unclear if Murphy has found that equilibrium yet.