As the chapter on face masks in New Jersey schools ended Monday morning, future lawyer Diana Zanga did not hesitate when she arrived at Grove and Murray Streets in Elizabeth.
Crossing guard, Deborah Walker, didn’t either.
They hugged. But Zanga made sure her face mask was fastened on first and Walker had hers at the ready for any students who felt more comfortable around her with it on.
“COVID isn’t 100% over yet,” the seventh-grader at Abraham Lincoln School No. 14 said Monday morning. “There’s still a chance that you could get it, so I’m not taking any chances.”
Walker said she couldn’t be more elated. “I missed seeing their faces,” she said, stop sign in hand.
The Elizabeth School District, the third largest district in the state with over 28,000 students, joined hundreds of other New Jersey school districts starting mask optional rules Monday as Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the school mask mandate and the public health emergency.
Other large districts, like Jersey City and Edison, have also installed mask optional policies. Meanwhile the largest district in the state, Newark Public Schools, said it would continue to require masks indoors. New CDC guidance indicated face masks were no longer needed based on declining case figures but some districts said they won’t drop mask rules until after spring break.
For many students, it was the first time they were allowed to be maskless while in classes and on school buses since many districts reopened for in-person instruction in September 2020.
Many students kept their masks on. A few went without them — one even tossed his into the air after getting off the bus — and more kept them in their pockets in case the urge struck to put it on.
The school day, like others, kicked off with morning announcements, then Principal Diane Matos-Reis walked over to Michelle Buska’s Kindergarten class, where Lincoln’s littlest practiced writing sentences with a song from the animated movie “Sing” playing in the background.
“Good morning!” they said together when the principal walked in — about half from behind small masks.
“All of our kids are really supportive even when we had to wear masks. They were very diligent about keeping their friends safe … to cover their coughs and sneezes, so they’ve been really helpful with all of that,” Buska said.
Elizabeth’s 37 schools were able to make masks optional due to Union County’s low transmission rate, school officials said.
Elizabeth schools’ district spokesman, Pat Politano, said there have not been any issues with bullying. However, he noted, school officials would continue to be mindful of potential problems students could encounter based on their mask preferences.
Hallways and classrooms in Elizabeth school buildings went unchanged from Friday. Students and staff will still be asked to maintain three feet of distance and water fountains will continue to be closed “with the personal dispensers in place,” Politano said.
Other signs of the pandemic that remain in place: directional arrows in stairwells, windows in classes and buses will remain open to increase air flow, distancing will be encouraged at sports and performing arts events and staff will continue to disinfect “high-touch areas.”
Expressing what the new mask rules meant at the 800-student Abraham Lincoln School came in many forms Monday.
“I wanted to keep mine on to be safe but I do think about spring and summer when it gets warmer and I don’t want to wear it inside,” said Kendry Cruz, 10.
Her mother, Marbella Cruz, dropped off Kendry and her 11-year-old brother, Oliver.
“I haven’t ever told them they can come in without (masks). For me to be fine with them not wearing them, I’d need to know most kids are vaccinated,” said Marbella Cruz.
When asked what the “mask optional” policy meant for her, teacher Teresa Ruiz, sighed in relief.
“I teach kids with special needs, they run and play and it can be hard for them to catch their breath when they have the masks on,” she said in Spanish. “They’ll be much more comfortable now.”
While heading down the hall to Donna McDonald’s first-grade class, art from the kids coated the walls as did reminders to show classmates respect.
Eight of the 14 kids in McDonald’s class kept their masks on.
Each took turns recapping their weekends. One filled everyone in on the cheeseburger he ate (sans pickles). Another said he was recovering from feeling somewhat unwell over the weekend.
“Today is pretty monumental. We’ve come a long way as a community and a district,” said Matos-Reis, the school’s principal. “I think at the end of the day it’s important everyone feels comfortable choosing the (mask option) they prefer.”
State officials continue to implore that the pandemic is not over. In the state’s last COVID press briefing Friday, Murphy and state health officials urged that future case spikes will likely happen.
For Nemeceo Medias, a dad whose kids attend Albert Einstein Academy School No. 29 in Elizabeth, the setting is the biggest factor, he said.
“If they’re in a crowded place I’d want them to keep them on,” Medias said as his daughters mounted the school bus.
Marvin, 13, and Marcus Francois, 10, sat together on the steps of Lincoln School.
“Yes, we should keep them on,” Marvin said, his little brother nodding next to him. “We don’t want to get sick or go back to learning from home.”
For the 2021-22 school year, the Elizabeth School District entered a virtual format twice. Once after the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New Jersey — causing two city schools to close (they’ve since reopened). And again between Jan. 3 and Jan. 15 as the height of omicron swept through the state.
Politano said the Elizabeth School District’s mask requirements have not resulted in major backlash or criticism by parents or staff.
In her letter to the community Friday, Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer said going forward the school district will “update our health and safety protocols as appropriate.”
Would the district leave the door open to require masks again?
“Throughout this whole process, we followed the data, the science, so based on CDC recommendations (and) based on the New Jersey Department of Health recommendations, our local health department most importantly, if we started to see the cases increase we certainly would,” said Hugelmeyer on Monday morning.
But for many at Lincoln School, reverting to mask mandates did not feel like it would be necessary. Spring would soon begin, classrooms were bustling and many more smiling faces were on full display.
“We are ecstatic that we are at this point,” added Hugelmeyer. “But certainly cautious.”
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Steven Rodas may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him @stevenrodasnj.