STAFFORD — Critics of mask-wearing rules for students planned to rally Monday afternoon in support of an Ocean County school nurse suspended without pay for ditching her own mask at work.

Erin Pein, who has been a nurse in the Stafford public school district for three years, stopped following the state directive for facial coverings after saying that she thought masks were causing a range of physical illnesses in children.

Demonstrators against mask requirements for children planned the event outside McKinley Elementary School on Monday, ahead of a Stafford Board of Education meeting at which the nurse’s future employment was expected to be discussed.

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She was approved by the local school board in 2018 to be hired as a “long term substitute floater nurse.”

As her suspension for ignoring her district’s rules has made headlines, Pein has created a Facebook business page called “Erin Unmasked.” She also created a Monday event listing for people to support her ahead of the board meeting.

Pein has made the cable TV rounds, including on Newsmax and at least two shows on the Fox News Channel, saying she has gotten personal reports of headaches and anxiety among students, which she attributes to mask wearing. She also said one child told her he had been wearing a bandana as a mask for two weeks.

During at least one of the interviews on Fox, she said that her own children wear masks to attend classes in person, as required. Pein also has called the mask mandate “child abuse” in multiple interviews since her suspension.

Under the state’s reopening guidelines for schools since late last summer, face coverings have been required for staff, students, and visitors in school facilities, except when eating or drinking, in extreme heat outdoors, or when doing so presents a health hazard, among exceptions.

“Face coverings may be removed during physical education or music classes, provided individuals are in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet apart,” according to the state guidance, which also says that schools should provide extra disposable face coverings for students who need them, in particular for any experiencing financial hardship.

“All kinds of things that are potentially from the mask because none of them are wearing them safely,” Pein previously said to New Jersey 101.5, adding she’s received emails about cases of strep throat.

Public health officials have not found links between mask wearing and an increase in strep throat cases. Even without a pandemic, strep bacteria typically peaks during the winter months and in April and May, according to Mayo Clinic and Piedmont Healthcare.

COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets, according to the CDC, which recommends masks be worn by those two and older "when around people who do not live with you," including public settings.

The CDC also recommends washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol after touching or removing your mask.

Protests of the continued school mask policy comes as the state has been trying to get all students back inside classrooms before the summer.

As of Monday, 13 schools or districts remained on all-remote instruction, including six charter schools and three special needs schools — leaving four school districts that have not been in-person for well over a year.

There were 338 schools or districts that reported being open for all in-person instruction, while 416 reported being on hybrid instruction. Another 44 schools or districts reported using a combination of those models across buildings.

Pein’s stance against the mask mandate also has attracted at least two Republican candidates vying to challenge Gov. Phil Murphy in his re-election campaign.

Phil Rizzo posted a video chat with Pein to Youtube on April 25, while Hirsh Singh met with Pein as seen in a video shared online by his campaign on the same day.

On her personal Facebook page, Pein shared a video for the "Stafford MAGA" movement on Monday, backing a township councilman who has aligned his re-election campaign with Singh’s.

Singh’s campaign created its own Facebook listing for the rally supporting Pein on Monday.

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