"Masking continues to be an important tool to prevent the spread of COVID and should be used in many circumstances," the governor said. "In the coming weeks, the Department of Health will also be updating its guidance to help school districts make the best decisions as to whether and when masks should be worn."
"Early March traditionally means the weather starts to warm up at least a bit... which will give schools a little bit more flexibility to increase ventilation, be more creative with that, and further decrease the risk of COVID spread," he said. "Perhaps most importantly, this is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids."
The governor said it's up to individual school districts to make the final decision.
"We are not removing the ability of individual district leaders to maintain and enforce such a policy within their schools, or any private child care provider from maintaining such a policy within their business, should community conditions require," he said. "Likewise, any student, educator, or staff member or visitor who chooses to continue masking up while indoors may freely do so."
Murphy also encouraged schools to "take swift disciplinary action against those who may try to demean or bully anyone who chooses to wear a mask."
The teachers' union, the NJEA, released a statement saying it's encouraged by the data and cautiously optimistic, adding it wants the governor to "continue to analyze the data and do whatever is necessary to best protect the health and well-being of students and staff. That includes the possibility of maintaining or re-imposing the mask mandate for schools after March 7."
Dr. Adrianna Bravo is a pediatrician who has been offering guidance to districts around the country and says local policies don't have to be on or off, CBS2's Christina Fan reported.
"Move it the way you would a dimmer switch. Maybe we begin to take our masks off slowly in some of our lower-risk situations, but we keep our masks on a little bit longer in some of those higher-risk moments," Bravo said.
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In Hoboken, masks can come off Monday, but some said they'll leave them on.
"I think it's about time," resident Rob Phillips told CBS2's Alice Gainer.
"Like the gym, yeah definitely. Restaurants probably. Depends how busy it is," Rianna Jobamputra said of where she'll continue to don a face covering.
Students and parents at Kearny High School said they will be relieved to return to real face-to-face instruction.
"For kids, maybe it's a good thing as long as they are vaccinated," Jack Corbett said.
"Our faces are how we communicate with each other. So I think it would be very helpful and a good thing for them to look forward to," Jennifer Fonseca said.
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The decision signals a major effort to get the state back to normal. COVID cases and hospitalizations have rapidly decreased since peaking in early January.
New Jersey reported 1,895 new positive cases and 18 new confirmed deaths Sunday.
"I don't think we are closer to the end of the pandemic. I just think that because of the vaccines, that may help," Karen Loaiza said.
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Throughout the pandemic, Murphy imposed some of the country's strictest COVID-related measures. Masks in schools proved to be among the most divisive, riling up parents and elected officials.
"I teach 7-year-olds, so I'm constantly telling them to keep their masks up. So I think it would be something they look forward to," teacher Susana Peso added.
Senate Republicans are circulating a "Give It Back" petition, calling for the governor to lift the mandate now, instead of waiting until March.
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont announced on Monday afternoon he's recommending to end the state mask mandate on Feb. 28.
"In particular what that means that the protocols for masks that will be worn in schools and child care centers, as of the 28th, no longer by order of the state of Connecticut. It will be up to you. ... It will be up to superintendents in schools, and mayors to make that election, themselves," Lamont said.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will make an announcement on Wednesday regarding the state's indoor mask mandate, which is set to expire Thursday.
CBS2's Alice Gainer contributed to this report.
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