By Shrutee Behera and Sade Peña, 2022 Governor's STEM Scholars
Earlier this month, New Jersey’s statewide mask mandate for K-12 students was lifted. Two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, this last line of defense to protect New Jersey’s 1.25 million public school students no longer exists. As a result, student safety has been severely compromised.
Throughout the pandemic, New Jersey school districts have implemented several tools to protect students from the rampant spread of COVID-19 within schools and classrooms: remote learning, quarantining, vaccines, and masking.
Earlier this year, COVID-19 cases spiked as the Omicron variant spread through New Jersey schools. In the three weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break, New Jersey schools saw a 155 percent increase in student cases, according to NJ.com. While schools claimed to be using all the tools available to them, more than a quarter of a million NJ school-aged kids tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 100,000 since the beginning of the school year.
After over a year online, as students returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2021, the New Jersey Department of Education reports that nearly 1000 NJ schools went remote once again with the rise of COVID cases after winter break this year. The remote session was much too short and kids were brought to school before the latest COVID wave had passed, putting students in danger of contracting the virus again.
Additionally, the practice of quarantining has been severely reduced, diluting its effectiveness. In January, at the height of the Omicron surge, CDC guidelines changed to reduce quarantining to only 5 days for students and staff. This is a far cry from the 14 days originally recommended. These guidelines allow those who are vaccinated to not quarantine at all. Since those vaccinated against COVID can still act as carriers for the virus, we find this to be a very dangerous practice.
To attend public school, New Jersey requires kids to be vaccinated against many contagious diseases such as polio, measles, chicken pox, among others. However, a requirement has not been instituted for students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the New York Times Vaccine Tracker, currently, 35 percent of 5-11 year olds have been fully vaccinated and 71 percent of 12-17 year olds have received two doses in New Jersey. Experts declare herd immunity when vaccine numbers across all age groups are between 80-90 percent of the population.
With lack of implementation of a vaccine mandate and a reduced quarantine requirement, removing the mask mandate would strip us of our last line of defense. A recent CDC and Arkansas Department of Health study found that schools with mask mandates saw 23 percent fewer COVID-19 cases this fall than those without. As of early February, two-thirds of students throughout New Jersey have not yet been fully vaccinated against COVID, making the removal of masking requirements dangerous. Although the state is no longer requiring masks, we urge school districts to pass district-wide policies.
Children and young adults face concerning side effects as a result of the virus entering their respiratory system. They deal with fatigue, anxiety, depression, fever, headaches and sleep problems among other issues. In some severe instances, children remain unresponsive and uncoordinated for long periods of time after the pathogen has entered their system.
Additionally, some studies suggest that kids who have had COVID have an increased risk of developing diabetes. However, it will be years before we know the long term effect of this virus on children and young adults.
After two years, there is a growing number of parents supporting the end of mask mandates. However, the risks that accompany COVID-19 cannot be ignored. As various studies demonstrate, the long term and short term side effects of the virus are far more harmful to a child’s health than wearing a mask.
Schools have worked with the tools available to them to try and protect students against COVID-19. But we aren’t done yet. For now, masks should stay on.
Shrutee Behera is a sophomore at McNair Academic High School, a prospective surgeon and a 2022 Governor’s STEM Scholar.
Sade Pena is a junior in the BioMedical Science Academy at High Tech High School, an aspiring Chemical Engineer, and a 2022 Governor’s STEM Scholar.