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TRENTON, N.J. — In a reversal of plans, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday announced a mask mandate in schools for the upcoming academic year.

Murphy announced the mask requirement, attributing the change in plans to the rampant spread of the delta variant, the fact that children under 12 are not eligible for vaccinations, and many of those 12 and older remain unvaccinated.

“The health and safety of our kids is among, if not my most, sacred responsibility as it is, by the way, of any governor,” Murphy said.

“We understand that students learn best in a classroom setting and remain committed to having our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction this fall,” said Gov. Murphy. “While this announcement gives us no pleasure, I know that by taking this precaution we can keep our schools open while also keeping our children safe. We will continue to closely monitor the science and data and will lift this mandate when we can do so safely. I urge those who are eligible for vaccination but have yet to be vaccinated to act and help move our state in the right direction.”

As soon as conditions allow, the mandate will be lifted, according to Murphy.

Exceptions to the school mask requirement include those exposed to excessive heat or participating in high-intensity physical activities, when an individual has trouble breathing, is unconscious or unable to remove a face covering without assistance as well as when eating and drinking and playing an instrument that would be obstructed by the face covering.

The state’s Republican Party have largely trashed the decision.

GOP candidate for governor in November and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli called the move “bewildering.”

“Let me be clear, I oppose Gov. Murphy’s mask mandate for students,” Ciattarelli said in a statement. “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 added that the move felt like “the first step towards another Murphy lockdown.”

Assembly GOP leader Jon Brammick criticized the lack of hearings in Trenton held before the decision.

“Decisions related to COVID policy continue to be made without any legislative hearings,” said Bramnick. “My concern focuses on the rights of every citizen to be heard through their legislature with an opportunity to hear from medical experts. Democracy requires transparency.”

In support of the mask mandate, New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union, which has endorsed Murphy for re-election.

“We support the Murphy Administration’s decision to follow public health guidance and require masking for students and staff in public schools as the new school year begins,” leaders for the NJEA said in a statement. “It is the prudent, responsible course of action in the face of the resurgence of COVID-19 across the state.”