Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday signed legislation that allows parents who don’t want their children wearing masks to opt out of any school district mandates.
The new law comes more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. Most Georgia schools have dropped mask mandates due to declining infection rates and relaxed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This will ensure that parents have the final say when it comes to the health and well-being of their child,” Kemp said before signing the bill. “It is a common sense measure that puts parents in charge — not the government.”
The law takes effect immediately through June 2027. The Georgia Department of Public Health has said the governor could suspend it in a state of emergency.
“The bill is great news for our parents. It’s great news for our students,” said Georgia State Superintendent Richard Woods, who attended the signing. “When it comes to masks, vaccines or other personal health decisions, they have complete say of what needs to be done.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Clayton County is the only major school district in metro Atlanta still requiring masks. Superintendent Morcease Beasley said last week the district will abide by the new law.
“While we still feel that Clayton County needs to have a higher vaccination rate, especially in light of a potential surge in cases due to the new variation of the Omicron strain, we will adhere to the law enacted by the Georgia General Assembly and when signed by Governor Brian Kemp,” Beasley said in a statement.
In February, Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, introduced Senate Bill 514 — the “Unmask Georgia Students Act” — with the governor’s backing.
A recent study cited by the CDC found lower infection rates in schools that mandated masks for everyone than in those without universal mask requirements.
But state Republican lawmakers say COVID-19 is relatively harmless for children and masks are not effective enough to merit their use in schools.
Democrats and other critics say the legislation eviscerates local control over the pandemic response, adding that shifting online is the only remaining defense for schools.
Public health experts say infections could increase again due to a subvariant of omicron called BA.2. It’s been spreading in Georgia and the rest of the country.
Kemp tried to restrict mask mandates in public schools last spring with an executive order that fell short of an outright ban.
He announced in early February that he would push for this bill days after a blowup over masks in connection with this year’s gubernatorial campaign.
Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic challenger, chose to remove her mask for a photo with young children in a Decatur classroom. The children were wearing masks, as were adults in the background. Republicans, including Kemp, pounced on the issue after the image circulated online.
Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell called it hypocritical. So did Kemp’s Republican primary challenger, David Perdue.
Abrams apologized for removing her mask to read to students. Her campaign called the attacks “pathetic, transparent and silly.”
Since then, the pandemic’s grip has loosened, and the CDC has established a new method of rating the risk for communities. The health agency said that, as of early March, masks were no longer necessary in most indoor settings, including in schools and on school buses.
Mask advocates are pushing back, though.
A federal judge in Virginia recently granted a portion of an injunction sought by parents of a dozen children against an executive order and new state law allowing a similar mask opt out. The parents had argued that the mask-optional policy effectively excluded some children with disabilities from public school.
About the law
What it does: Allow parents who don’t want their child wearing masks in schools the right to opt out of any mandates.
Time frame: The law takes effect immediately through June 2027.
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