Georgia teacher lawsuit accuses Kemp, school officials of putting staff, students at risk for COVID-19

A lawsuit by a teacher in Paulding County is challenging the way officials from Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods down to the local school board have handled the coronavirus.

The lawsuit alleges that lax state and local standards have exposed staff, students, families and the Paulding community to risk of infection by the sometimes deadly virus.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the State Defendants have steadfastly refused to issue meaningful, binding requirements for school districts concerning how they are expected to operate during the pandemic,” says the complaint in Fulton County Superior Court. This is in “sharp contrast” to standards for restaurants, retailers or summer camps, the lawsuit notes.

The complaint seeks legal costs but not monetary damages. It asks the court to require schools to implement precautions and follow standards “reasonably calculated” to ensure safety.

The Georgia Association of Educators, the state’s second-largest teacher advocacy organization with 28,000 members, is a party to the suit with the anonymous Paulding employee and education group member, described as a longtime teacher. She is referred to only by her initials M.J. because she fears retaliation by the school district, the suit says. She lives with a parent, nearly 80, who has a lung disease that enhances the risk of consequences of COVID-19.

She also has a child attending the school system who has asthma and severe allergies. Though Paulding offers an online option, this family chose not to enroll in it because the child is a “strong” student and “because of the complexity of the subject matter and the rigorous workload of her curriculum.”

“This is all about the health and safety of our students," said the Georgia education group’s President, Lisa Morgan, a teacher in DeKalb County. “The reopening plans across the state are not prioritizing health and safety.”

Though the Fulton clerk’s office couldn’t locate a copy of the complaint Thursday afternoon, Morgan said her organization’s lawyers said they had electronically filed it Wednesday. Then her group shared it publicly. She said that as far as she knew it was one of the first lawsuits of its kind in the nation, likely because Georgia was among the earliest states to return to school for the fall semester.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Paulding schools would comment about the complaint, both saying they don’t comment on pending litigation.

On Wednesday Kemp had pointed to declining case counts, saying Georgians had “stepped up to the plate” in responding to the coronavirus. Since mid-July, Georgia has reported declining cases in 10 out of the past 11 weeks, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

Still, Georgia’s seven-day rolling average of new cases is about double what it was at the low point at the end of May, a month after Kemp relaxed shelter-in-place orders, and the death rate reported during the seven days that ended last Friday was above the national average, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

After reviewing the complaint, Hillel Levin, a University of Georgia law professor noted that the family chose to place the child in school rather than online, and the complaint is unclear about why and also why the online option would have been inadequate under the Georgia constitutional standard. It appears the teacher has a stronger claim of being compelled to work in an unsafe condition, he said.

A judge could order the schools to address her concerns, but a decision like that could take until the spring or after, Levin said. He wondered whether the lawyers had filed a motion for a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction, which could bring speedier intervention.