Gov. Phil Murphy has been resolute over the last few weeks: While parents should have the option to keep their kids home, he says, school buildings should reopen despite the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

"Every education expert we’ve spoken to over the past few months has confirmed that in-person education is critical and that remote learning is only an acceptable substitute when absolutely necessary," the governor said July 27. "If done safely, I believe we must try to include at least some aspect of in-person education for our children this fall."

Teachers' unions have pushed back, saying schools aren't ready — but Murphy has maintained the same line since.

But in the days since, school administrators say they're grappling with a dizzying and too-quickly-shifting set of rules from the state intended to keep kids safe as they return — with a new checklist of responsibilities issued even as districts' own home-grown plans to the state Department of Education were due.

Among the latest requirements from Murphy's administration: All masks, all the time, with exceptions for students who have health complications. Until Aug. 3, Murphy was urging students to mask up in crowded areas, but not requiring it throughout the day.

That just isn't going to work in some Manalapan-Englishtown Regional District buildings — where not every facility has air conditioning — schools Superintendent John J. Marciante wrote in a letter to parents last week.

"While additional guidance was promised, one thing is clear," he wrote. "Governor Murphy has not sat in a classroom in a non-air conditioned school during September for any extended period of time. As I stated in my presentation last week, it is unreasonable to expect that any child would be able to wear a mask in an 85-degree classroom for a four-hour period."

Instead, the district is quickly shifting its plans. Many students who'd previously been expected to have an alternating schedule of in-person and remote instruction are now on an all-remote schedule for September. The decision affects second- through fifth-grade students at the Clark Mills School, Lafayette Mills School, Taylor Mills School and Milford Brook School. All sixth-grade students at Pine Brook School will also be on remote instruction for the month.

The students are expected to return to school buildings, on the alternating "hybrid" schedule, Oct. 15.

Kindergarten and first-grade students will receive in-person instruction — with masks required as per the governor's instruction — in air-conditioned classrooms.

"From all the emails I have received, it is clear to me that many parents do not want to have their children wearing a mask for four straight hours," Marciante wrote.

Marciante said in his letter he acknowledged remote learning is easier for affluent communities than for those with parents who struggle financially, even as the district makes its own plans to provide resources for families that need them. And he said it provides particular challenges for children with special needs — "All of this must be a part of our thinking as we move to September."

"I know many of you will not agree with this decision," Marciante wrote. "I have been in those classes in September. I can not put a plan into place that requires a child to sit in a classroom under those conditions."

The Manalapan-Englishtown district isn't the only one struggling with last-minute changes to the state's guidance — in particular, its masking requirement.

“A checklist after most plans have been submitted is obviously problematic,” Freehold Regional Schools Superintendent Charles Sampson said in a written response to New Jersey 101.5 last week.

“The full mask at all times inside will require many districts to rethink their original plans that have, in many cases, already been submitted and approved by local boards.”

South Brunswick Schools Superintendent Scott Feder pointed out a lack of mask requirements last month, in a tweet about the state’s guidance to districts.

“104 pages of DOE guidance & nowhere is a mention of proactive testing? Add that DOE gave definitive language that students do not need to wear masks in classrooms! Do educators and students not have the same right to health & safety precautions?”

On Wednesday, Murphy said he has sympathy with school superintendents and hoped they realize “we’ve never gone through this before,” adding “there’s no playbook” and that “facts do evolve.”

“We’re trying to work as constructively as possible with all the stakeholders in all the districts around the state,” Murphy said.

— Includes previous reporting by Erin Vogt

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