Forcing kids to wear masks in school has been one of the most divisive pandemic policies implemented by Gov. Phil Murphy. He is now suggesting that mandate could be lifted before the end of the school year.

"I think there's a real shot of that," Murphy said in an interview with PIX11 on Thursday.

He gave no timetable, other than before the end of the current school year, and only if COVID metrics continue fall.

On Thursday, New Jersey's rate of transmission dropped to .83, the lowest it has been since before the Thanksgiving holiday last year. Hospitalizations have dipped below 5,000. Despite high demand for COVID testing, the number of new positive test results are also falling.

"It certainly looks like we have begun to turn the corner," Murphy said, and if the trends continue the mask could come off.

The mask issue has sparked heated debate in school districts around the state and led to angry confrontations at school board meetings. Parents have staged dozens of protests over the last two years.

It was Murphy's insistence to keep kids masked-up in school that led to the legislature's refusal to extend his pandemic powers earlier this month.

The mask mandate for schools was due to expire on Jan. 12.

Murphy instead declared a new public health emergency, in part, to keep that mandate in place. At the time, he said wearing a mask was critical in order to maintain in-person instruction.

A large number of the state's school districts have had to move at least some classes back to remote learning due to COVID outbreaks among students and staff.

As of Jan. 17, the New Jersey Department of Health reports there have been 406 cumulative outbreaks inside school buildings.

State education officials have announced shorter quarantine times and a "test-to-stay" policy in an effort to keep schools fully open.

Murphy also signed a law this week to allow retired teachers to return to the classroom with no impact on their pension. It's intended to address ongoing staffing issues in many districts.

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