Georgia House committee: Don’t let schools enforce mask mandates

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Credit: Georgia Legislative video

Legislation that would prohibit public schools from making students wear a mask advanced through a state House committee Monday and will likely get a final vote soon.

Senate Bill 514 by Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, wouldn’t stop schools from requiring masks but would prevent them from enforcing such mandates. The ”Unmask Georgia Students Act” says schools could require masks but would have to let parents exempt their children from the requirement.

The bill passed the Senate several weeks ago in a nearly party-line vote, with one Democrat crossing the aisle to side with Republicans. Gov. Brian Kemp has said he supports it.

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On Monday, during a hearing of the House Education Committee, Democrats said their committee lacked expertise to vet such legislation. After Dixon told them that masks are ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools and inhibit learning, Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, asked a barbed question: “Can you tell us what your profession is?”

“Real estate,” Dixon responded.

Dixon later said that state public health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey had told Kemp’s office that she supports the measure, even with a Senate amendment to extend its effect through June 2027.

When state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, asked Dixon for proof of Toomey’s support, the committee chairman, state Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, urged her to meet with Dixon after the hearing to get confirmation. “But I would think that the gentleman would not represent comments that he was not completely sure of,” Dubnik said.

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Kemp’s office confirmed Toomey’s support for the bill with its expiration in five years, in response to a query by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Toomey’s spokeswoman didn’t outright say the commissioner supported this latest version, but confirmed her commitment to “safe, in-person learning” across the state.

“While she supports local control, she understands the need to preserve parents’ ability to have a say in their child’s day-to-day learning,” the spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam, said in an email to the AJC

Nydam’s email noted that infection and quarantine protocols still apply and said the law could be suspended by the governor, without legislative action, should COVID-19 cases, new variants or other diseases create a public health emergency.

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In early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new Arkansas study showing that transmission of the virus in schools overall was 23% lower in districts with full mask mandates than in districts without mask mandates. The agency dropped its recommendation for universal masking in schools in late February, except in areas where COVID-19 was straining hospitals.

In metro Atlanta, Clayton County is the only school district still mandating masks in buildings and on buses.

“We want our students, our employees and our community to know that it’s imperative — critical — to us that everyone is safe in our facilities,” Superintendent Morcease Beasley said in a YouTube live session earlier this month.

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Dubnik refused to entertain Wilson’s motion to transfer the bill to the House Health & Human Services Committee, where several members have backgrounds in health care. The education committee then passed the bill 11-6.

Next, the House Rules Committee will determine whether and when to schedule it for a vote on the House floor, one stop away from Kemp’s desk and a signature into law.

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