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NEW JERSEY (PIX11) — While COVID numbers continue to decline in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday an end to the state’s mask mandate for public schools.

The governor said students and school staff can go maskless beginning March 7. The statewide mandate has been in effect since the start of the academic year in September.

“Balancing public health with getting back to some semblance of normalcy is not easy. But we can responsibly take this step due to declining COVID numbers and growth in vaccinations,” Murphy said on Twitter.

The move came less than three weeks after Murphy told the PIX11 Morning News that he expected the mask mandate for schools to end before the end of this academic year. “I think there’s a real shot of that…I don’t mean this calendar year. You’re speaking about the school year that ends in June,” the governor said on Jan. 20.

The state’s strict mask rules for schools and day care were set to expire earlier in January, along with some of Murphy’s COVID emergency powers that came as part of a law he signed in June. However, the governor declared a public health emergency again, due to the surge of the super-contagious omicron variant. The order kept the masking rules in place for schools.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli told PIX11 in mid-January that COVID outbreaks in Garden State schools were “not as significant as you can imagine,” despite the omicron spread. However, she added that she felt masks were effective in keeping kids safe.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.