EAST BRUNSWICK – Citing the “recent and rampant spread” of the coronavirus delta variant and the unavailability of vaccines to children under age 12, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday that masks will be required for all students, staff and visitors in New Jersey schools to start the upcoming year.

Murphy signed an executive order that applies to the indoor premises of all public, private and parochial preschools and K-12 school buildings, effective Monday.

“This is not an announcement that gives any of us or me personally any pleasure,” Murphy said. “But as the school year approaches and with the numbers rapidly increasing, it is the one that we need to make right now.”

There are exceptions, such as for extreme heat, while eating and drinking and during high-intensity physical education. Students with documented medical conditions and disabilities are also excepted.

"As soon as conditions allow, please God sooner than later, we will lift this requirement again," Murphy said. "This is not permanent."

Murphy said schools will reopen full-time with in-person learning because students learn better in classrooms that in a remote setting. He said the experience in some schools in states that have already begun their new year is that the virus is causing school closures that are disruptive to both students and their parents.

"Anyone telling you that we can safely reopen our schools without requiring everyone inside to wear a mask is quite simply lying to you because we can't," Murphy said.

The mandate is in line with the latest recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It’s also supported by the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map of COVID transmission in New Jersey in the week ending Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (Townsquare Media NJ)

The latest county-level assessments from the CDC rate four counties in New Jersey as having high rates of COVID transmission, with Burlington and Cumberland counties joining Monmouth and Cape May on that list.

Sixteen counties are rated to have substantial levels of COVID transmission. The only considered to have moderate transmission – and thus not covered by the CDC’s indoor public masking recommendation – is Warren County. No counties in New Jersey are at low transmission levels.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli called Murphy’s decision “a bewildering reversal of his position of just a few weeks ago” that the New Jersey Republican State Committee said was done to comply with the NJEA’s wishes.

“Let me be clear, I oppose Gov. Murphy's mask mandate for students,” Ciattarelli said. “The science is clear: nearly all children who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and wearing masks for children is terrible for their social and emotional development.

“Bottom line, whether a child wears a mask should be decided by parents, not government,” he said. “If someone wants to have their child wear a mask, they should feel free to do so, but it's not something that should be forced on children, nor should their learning be inhibited in any way.”

Ciattarelli also said the mandate “feels like the first step towards another Murphy lockdown, which is something our children, businesses, and taxpayers cannot afford or are willing to accept."

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Democratic State Committee spokesman Phil Swibinski said Murphy’s decision is “about keeping kids safe and, in the process, making sure schools stay open and parents are able to go to work.”

“Of course Jack Ciattarelli is against masks in schools — he’s also against vaccines in schools, and seemingly against the state taking any measure whatsoever to keep children safe in the face of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases driven primarily by the very same anti-vaccine, anti-science movement that he so desperately wants support from,” Swibinski said.

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