NEW YORK (Reuters) -New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said kindergarten through 12th-grade students and staff must wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status when public schools open, as the Delta variant of coronavirus increasingly threatens Americans.
Reversing his earlier stance to conform with updated federal guidance, Murphy told a news conference the shift is a reaction to the worsening COVID-19 indicators in the state.
“There are issues that are and must always remain above politics, and this is one of them,” said Murphy, a Democrat who is the only incumbent U.S. governor up for re-election this fall.
The debate over wearing masks in U.S. schools reignited last month when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and recommended that all students and staff wear masks in school regardless of vaccination status.
A patchwork of policies has emerged from state to state, and even town to town, around the issue that has become deeply political in the United States.
In New Jersey, COVID-19 cases rose 105% over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of public health data. Hospitalizations have spiked 92% in the past four weeks, the data shows.
About 67% of New Jersey residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. U.S. vaccination rates vary widely from a high of 76% of Vermont residents receiving a first dose to a low of 41% in Mississippi. (Graphic of U.S. vaccination rates) https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb
States with lower vaccination rates have been hardest hit by the fast-spreading variant.
Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi account for half of the country’s new cases and hospitalizations in the last week, White House officials said.
Vaccination rates tend to be lower in those states than other parts of the country.
On the other end of the spectrum from New Jersey’s Murphy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has strongly advocated for freedom of choice on vaccines and masks, even with a recent rise in case counts and hospitalizations.
Florida reported a record 22,783 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, its highest single-day case count since the pandemic began, according to CDC data. The state also had 13,427 people hospitalized, breaking a record for the fifth day in a row, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reported.
The state Board of Education on Friday adopted an emergency rule that would allow parents to transfer their child to another school “when a student is subjected to harassment in response to a school district’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols,” including mask protocols.
The new rule lets parents transfer their children to a private school or a school in another district under the Hope scholarship program, originally created to allow public school pupils who are victims of bullying or harassment to move to a different institution.
During a emergency meeting called by the board, one parent called the rule a “moral outrage” that equated a school’s mask mandate to harassment and bullying.
In a separate emergency ruling issued on Friday, the state’s department of health said school districts could require students to wear face coverings, but gave parents have the right to allow their children to opt out of the requirement, the SunSentinel reported.
DeSantis issued an executive order last week that blocked mask mandates in the state’s schools. It was unclear whether the health department’s rule conformed with the executive order.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki on Friday repeated the administration’s concern about efforts on the state level to restrict localities from imposing policies that conform with public health guidelines.
As of Friday, a record high of more than 13,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Florida, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Jeff Mason in Washington and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Alistair Bell)