New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced that he will lift the state’s mask mandate for schools and child care settings next month in a move that highlights a growing desire across the country to shift away from certain mitigation measures and into a “new normal” as coronavirus cases fall.

“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from omicron, and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” Murphy said at a press conference, adding that “this is a huge step back to normalcy for our kids.”

He made clear that school districts can still decide to enforce their own mask policies.

“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,” Murphy said. “Likewise, any student, educator or staff member or visitor who chooses to continue masking up while indoors may freely do so.”

The announcement follows a decision last month by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, to nix the mask mandate for K-12 schools and comes as other democratic governors are signaling similar shifts, including in neighboring New York and Connecticut.

In Illinois, a circuit judge ruled to suspend Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders on masking and quarantining for schools last Friday – though the governor said his attorney general would appeal the ruling immediately.

To mask or not to mask has become one of the most politically divisive COVID-19 culture wars to spin out of the pandemic. While Democrats favor mask requirements in schools over Republicans, poll after poll shows that a majority of parents support masking requirements in school – a finding that’s held steady for more than a year.

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