TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The governors of four states announced plans Monday to lift statewide mask requirements in schools by the end of February or March, citing the rapid easing of COVID-19's omicron surge.
The decisions in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon were announced as state and local governments grapple with which virus restrictions to jettison and which ones to keep in place. The changes also come amid a growing sense that the virus is never going to go away and Americans need to find a way to coexist with it.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called the move "a huge step back to normalcy for our kids" and said individual school districts will be free to continue requiring masks after the state mandate ends March 7.
Meanwhile, California announced plans to end its indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people next week, but masks will still be the rule for schoolchildren in the nation's most populous state.
The four states are among a dozen with mask mandates in schools, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. New Jersey's requirement has been in place since classes resumed in person in September 2020.
Murphy cited the "dramatic decline in our COVID numbers" in announcing the rollback. The omicron variant fueled a spike in infections over the holidays, but cases in the state are down 50% and hospitalizations dropped off by one-third since last week, he said.
"We are not -- and I've said this many times -- going to manage COVID to zero," the governor said. "We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to an endemic phase of this virus."
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont recommended ending the statewide mandate in schools and child care centers on Feb. 28. Delaware Gov. John Carney said his state's school mask mandate will run through March.
Oregon's mask requirements for schools will be lifted March 31. The statewide mask requirement for indoor public places will be lifted no later than the end of March, health officials announced.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state medical officer and epidemiologist, said education and health officials will meet in the coming weeks to revise guidance to "ensure schools can continue operating safely and keep students in class" once the mask rule is lifted.
The March 31 deadline was selected using predictions by health scientists that COVID-19-related hospitalizations will decrease to 400 or fewer by that time -- a level that Oregon experienced before the omicron variant surge.
In California, unvaccinated people will still be required to be masked indoors after Feb. 15, and everyone will have to wear masks in higher-risk areas such as public transit and nursing homes and other congregate living facilities, state officials said. Local governments can continue their own indoor masking requirements.
State officials also announced that indoor "mega events" with more than 1,000 people will have to require vaccinations or negative tests, and those who are unvaccinated will be required to wear masks. For outdoor events with more than 10,000 people, there is no vaccination requirement, but masks or negative tests will be recommended.
The debate over masks in schools has been polarizing in much of the U.S., with parents protesting at school board meetings and slates of candidates -- pro- and anti-mask -- seeking school board seats in an attempt to shape policies.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that universal mask-wearing in schools "still remains our recommendation," but she did not fault states for dropping the requirement.
"It's always been up to school districts. That's always been our point of view and always been our policy from here," she said.
Eight Republican-led states, including Florida and Texas, have bans on school mask mandates, though some have been suspended amid legal fights with districts and parents who want to require masks, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
In Illinois, where a judge last week struck down Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's statewide school mask mandate, the Democratic attorney general said Monday he will appeal the ruling. The Chicago school system, where teachers recently refused to hold in-person classes until an agreement was reached on safety measures, including providing KN95 masks to students and staff, said the ruling doesn't apply and the nation's third-largest district will continue to require masks.
Murphy faced pressure from Republicans and some parents who have held rallies at the statehouse demanding an end to the mandate. But the governor has had support for the mask rule from the New Jersey Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union.
In a statement, the union noted that trends show COVID-19 heading in the right direction, and added: "It is appropriate for Gov. Murphy to allow local districts to continue to require masking in communities where that is prudent based on local conditions."
Nationwide, new COVID-19 cases per day have plunged by more than a half-million since mid-January, when they hit a record-shattering peak of more than 800,000. Cases have been declining in 47 states over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Also, the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen 28% since mid-January to about 111,000.
Deaths are still running high at more than 2,400 per day on average, the most since last winter, reflecting a lag between when victims become infected and when they die.
In New Jersey, it is unclear how many and how soon the state's 600-plus school districts might end the wearing of masks.
In Paterson, the state's third-biggest city, the school system will take time to consult with administration officials, principals, parents and staff, said district spokesperson Paul Brubaker.
Melissa Alfieri-Collins, a mother of two who disagrees with mask mandates in schools, saying she prefers "choice," called the governor's decision good news. But she raised concern that districts might keep mask rules in place.
"For this reason, parents need an opt-out option for when and if districts do this," she said.
Connecticut will also allow school districts to retain the mandate. It's unclear if Delaware will follow suit, but the governor said he wanted to give school districts time to consider a local mandate.
Stephen White, a 55-year-old father of a 14-year-old son, said that if the lifting of the mandate were to take effect immediately, he wouldn't be in favor of it. But four weeks from now is a different story.
"By that time period, if the rates are going down and they can say that 'OK, kids are vaccinated' -- if they have a substantial amount of kids that are vaccinated -- I don't have a problem with them not wearing a mask at school," he said.
Francis Amegah, a 63-year-old with two children in the Newark school district, said the end of the mandate is "well overdue."
"They shouldn't be wearing masks. If something happens, we'll be able to handle that. The parents should be able to take care of that," he said.
Republicans claimed responsibility for pushing the governor to end the mandate.
"Gov. Murphy will never admit that the pressure is getting to him, but it absolutely is," GOP Senate Leader Steve Oroho said.