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.”