New Jersey will require all school employees to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 18 or submit to weekly testing, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday, making him just the fourth governor to institute a vaccine mandate for school staff.
The same policy will apply to all state employees, including those at state agencies and public colleges and universities, Murphy said.
The mandate comes as millions of New Jersey students are set to return to classrooms in the coming weeks even as the highly contagious delta variant fuels a rising number of COVID cases. The state is requiring all schools to operate fully in person this school year despite some families’ calls for a remote option.
The vaccine requirement applies to all personnel in public and private schools serving preschool through grade 12, Murphy said. The order covers both full- and part-time teachers, administrators, and other support staff, including custodians, cafeteria workers, and substitute teachers.
“We’re continuing to do all we can to ensure a safe start to the school year,” Murphy said in a statement. “Strong masking and vaccination protocols, in tandem with other safety measures, are our best consolidated tool for keeping our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction.”
New Jersey is the third state, after California and Hawaii, to order school workers to get vaccinated or face regular COVID testing — a policy New Jersey previously instituted for employees in healthcare settings and prisons. Only one state, Washington, has required all school workers to get vaccinated without an option to get tested instead; New York City announced a similar policy on Monday.
Murphy’s order has the crucial backing of the state’s largest teachers union, which had previously signaled that it would support a vaccination-or-testing mandate for its members. The announcement also comes the same day that the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which could potentially provide the state with some legal cover for its mandate.
Statewide, 72% of adults are fully vaccinated. Murphy could not say how many school employees are inoculated, but said local reports suggest “the overwhelming majority” of educators are vaccinated.
The rate is significantly lower among eligible children, who are not covered by the vaccine mandate. Just 53% of children ages 12 to 17 have received at least one dose, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday, adding that 323,000 students in that age group remain unvaccinated.
“We must do better,” she said.
In Newark, the state’s largest school district, the teachers union told members earlier this month to prepare for a vaccine requirement. Union officials said members would have to cover the copay cost for weekly testing if they decline to get vaccinated.
To date, less than a third of Newark Public Schools employees have provided proof of COVID vaccination, district officials said, even as Newark classrooms are scheduled to reopen on Sept. 7. The union said many more employees are vaccinated but have not yet reported their status to the district.
“The large majority of them are already vaccinated,” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat earlier this month. “You didn’t need to tell them twice.”
Abeigon said the union supports a vaccine mandate for school employees, which he said also should apply to eligible students. While the district has stepped up efforts to get eligible young people vaccinated, it has not given any indication that it will require them to do so.