Kemp urges Georgia lawmakers to address mask mandates in schools

The governor wants parents to be able to opt out

Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday revealed details about legislation he backs to bring an end to mask requirements in Georgia schools.

Kemp said it’s time that parents decide whether to send their kids to school wearing them, as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the end of a second year of disrupting schools in the state.

“This isn’t going to just end and be gone forever,” he said. “We’re going to have to deal with this but we’ve got tools to deal with it now. This isn’t saying that parents can’t make the decision to mask their kids. It’s just giving parents an opt out.”

About a quarter of the state’s 180 school districts still require masks, including several in metro Atlanta. Under Kemp’s plan, no school system could mandate masks without allowing parents to opt out.

The legislation, to be introduced by Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, doesn’t lay out a punishment for districts that ignore the proposed prohibition. It would expire June 30, 2023.

Teacher groups had varied reactions.

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers and also the federation in Atlanta, said current mask mandates are unenforceable. She described herself as “indifferent” to Kemp’s proposal.

“We can’t enforce it. It’s not a police state,” she said. She said she wishes people would voluntarily wear masks.

The Georgia Association of Educators opposes the proposal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks should be discretionary outside a school building but recommends universal masking indoors, the group’s president, Lisa Morgan, noted. The federal government requires that masks be worn on school buses.

“Once inside the school facility, the impact on other children must be considered by school officials,” she said, adding, “follow the science.”

Masks are optional in most metro Atlanta school districts. Atlanta Public Schools and school systems in Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties still require them.

Last week, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools voiced concern about possible legislation that would restrict districts from implementing the COVID-19 safety measures that they see fit.

“Legislation limiting the ability of school districts and boards to implement COVID mitigation efforts is without question a space of concern,” Superintendent Lisa Herring said at a meeting with state lawmakers who represent Atlanta.

Across metro Atlanta, 14 school districts have recorded more than 80,000 COVID-19 cases so far this academic year, according to data posted on their websites. The highest weekly count — more than 8,600 cases — was recorded in mid-January amid the omicron surge. The numbers have since dipped significantly.

Kemp first voiced his plans to repeal mask mandates by law last week, after Democrat Stacey Abrams, candidate for governor, was pictured in a Decatur school without a mask. Everyone around her, both child and adult, was masked because the district requires it.

Kemp said Monday that he was bringing the legislation now because of the “hypocrisy” of schools that require masks but allow visitors to enter without one.

Last week, after Kemp revealed his plans, his challenger for the Republican primary, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, called Kemp’s move a “desperate” reaction. Perdue’s campaign had released an ad on YouTube the day before Kemp’s announcement last Wednesday. Perdue’s ad ends with the words “unmask our kids” over that picture of an unmasked Abrams.

Kemp has tried before to end mask requirements in schools. He said in May he would prohibit mask mandates by fiat. But an executive order he subsequently issued fell short of an outright ban.