Newark keeps face mask requirement in schools

A teacher works with a student at a table in a classroom. Both are wearing masks.
Newark is among a few of the largest school districts in the country to keep its mask mandate in place, according to a website that tracks school policies. (Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat)

Newark Public Schools will keep its mask requirement, temperature checks, and other COVID preventative measures in place as the infection rate climbs across the city.

The district was set to end the measures this week. But an increase in the city’s COVID infection rate last week stopped any changes to protocols.

“In Newark, our numbers are starting to grow,” said Mayor Ras Baraka on Friday during a live Facebook update. “The numbers are still relatively low but they are growing, so we have to be cautious.”

Meanwhile, cases among students and staff dropped last week, according to the district’s most recent data posted Monday.

Baraka did not mention the district’s mask mandate during that update. The district did not respond to requests for comment.

John Abeigon, the Newark Teachers Union president, said the district’s decision to keep the COVID protocols in place came after the city’s health department advised Superintendent Roger León against making any changes.

Newark, the state’s largest school district, is one of the last in New Jersey to keep the mask mandate in place across its 65 schools and 38,000 students. Gov. Phil Murphy ended the statewide mask mandate in March, but school leaders were able to keep the rules in place for their districts. Paterson and New Brunswick are among the other districts to keep the rules in place.

Of the 500 largest school districts across the country, only 2% still require masks, including Newark, according to a school mask policy tracker from Burbio.

The city’s infection rate climbed in the last few weeks. On Friday, the seven-day rolling average was 5.31%, up from 3.25% two weeks earlier.

In the district, there were 49 positive cases among staff the week of April 18, when schools were closed for spring break. That was an uptick from 15 cases among staff the week prior.

“The slight bump was expected due to travel during the break,” Abeigon said. 

But when the district updated its COVID dashboard Monday, it showed 16 positive cases among staff and 18 among students last week, a return to case counts seen before the break.

The district did not respond to a question about when it plans to revisit the mask requirement.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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