Georgia Senate votes to let parents opt kids out of school mask mandates

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently eased its guidance on indoor mask usage, the Georgia Senate approved legislation Tuesday that would let the parents of public school students opt their children out of any local mask mandates.

The bill has moved briskly through the legislative process since it was introduced two weeks ago with backing from Gov. Brian Kemp. It still must get through the state House before he can sign it into law.

The measure comes as more school districts drop their mask mandates amid new federal recommendations that say masks are no longer necessary in public indoor settings in metro Atlanta and much of Georgia. It would allow parents to ignore any lingering mandates and would assure mask choice during any future surges in the infection rate.

The CDC released new criteria Friday that say masks are only needed indoors, including in schools, in counties where COVID-19 cases are straining the health care system.

As of Feb. 18, 44 of Georgia’s 180 school districts were requiring masks in at least some of their schools. But that list shrank after the CDC announcement, as the schools in Atlanta, Gwinnett County, DeKalb County and Decatur dropped their mandates.

Senate Bill 514, introduced by Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, says schools must allow parents to opt their children out of local mask mandates through June 2027. The bill originally proposed a 2023 expiration, but the Senate extended that Tuesday with Kemp’s support.

Kemp is still pushing for the bill despite the CDC shift. His office said it would be a guarantee against future changes to the federal recommendations.

The vote was 32-19, with no Republicans opposed and one Democrat in favor.

Masks have been politically divisive during the pandemic, and that division was clear at a hearing on the bill last week. Republicans said parents were in the best position to make health decisions for their children while Democrats said the legislation would constrain school administrators responsible for the safety of all students.

“We are effectively saying that individual parents are substantially more important than the collective in that case,” said Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta.

Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said schools went too far with masks, noting that relatively few children have died of COVID-19 and calling the pandemic a “statistical non-event” for them.

He said his own children do not wear masks at school: “They contracted COVID because you know what happens to kids? They get sick. And do you know what happens when kids get sick? They get well.”

Steve Gasper, a Gwinnett father, went to the Capitol to watch the hearing. He said he pulled his twins from the public school system and enrolled them in private school in part because of the local mask mandate. His sixth graders could have gotten a medical exemption due to a skin condition, he said, but he worried about the social pressure on them when most other kids were in masks.

“Just give us an option,” he said. “I believe COVID is real but I also believe in parent choice. Parents know their child better than anybody on this planet and they will always do what’s best for their children.”

The partisan debate continued on the Senate floor Tuesday with Republicans saying masks were detrimental to learning and Democrats saying the bill was a dangerous seizure of authority from elected school boards given the possibility of future surges.

“It’s slowed down and you don’t know what’s coming back up,” said Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, who has said she was hospitalized for COVID-19.

Dixon said the governor could use emergency powers to mandate masks if necessary but asserted, “Masks do not protect people as well as we once thought they did.”