As select parents continue their legal fight in order to nix the mask mandate for children in New Jersey schools, Gov. Phil Murphy says unmasking kids right now would likely result in additional school shutdowns.

Following a federal district court ruling that turned down a request for a preliminary injunction to block the mask mandate in public and private schools, Princeton-based attorney Bruce Afran on Monday filed for an appeal on behalf of several parents and children from across New Jersey.

"The governor is only imposing this very draconian and harsh rule on children in school," Afran said on a video conference call. "A thousand people can crowd a mall hallway and no one needs to wear a mask, yet 20 children in a classroom must be masked all day long."

U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty ruled on Dec. 7 that New Jersey's decision to impose an in-school mandate, while it does come with disadvantages, is a "rational one."

"Its burden on students and others is easily justified by the government’s interest in controlling the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining in-person schooling," McNulty said in his ruling.

Afran said an injunction to block the mask mandate will once again be requested, and the appeals court could hear the case, which pits parents and their children against the governor and other New Jersey officials, in the next two to four weeks and make a decision. After a ruling, either side can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, or the case could be sent back to Judge McNulty for further findings, Afran said.

"We're in this for the long haul," said Kelly Lepine Ford, one of the parents involved in the lawsuit and the founder of Free NJ Kids.

Afran noted he also has a case pending in the appellate division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, challenging Murphy's authority to assert "unbridled, absolute power" through executive orders such as the ones issued in August that mandate face coverings in schools.

Responding to a reporter's question on Monday, Murphy's team said they believe their mask mandate is on "sound legal footing."

It would be irresponsible to lift the mandate right now, Murphy suggested, noting that part of the reason for the order is that younger people have only recently become eligible for COVID-19 vaccination.

"Almost certainly more people would get sick, and my guess is schools would have to shut down," Murphy said.

Murphy said it's his "fervent hope" that the mandate can be lifted responsibly at some point sooner rather than later.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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