Clayton Schools drops mask mandate in response to new Georgia law

Students arrive for classes on the first day of school at Lake City Elementary School in Morrow on Aug. 2, 2021. This week, the Clayton County School District made masks optional after Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law legislation that allows parents the right to opt out of mask mandates. (Leon Stafford / AJC)

Combined ShapeCaption
Students arrive for classes on the first day of school at Lake City Elementary School in Morrow on Aug. 2, 2021. This week, the Clayton County School District made masks optional after Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law legislation that allows parents the right to opt out of mask mandates. (Leon Stafford / AJC)

Clayton County Public Schools will no longer expect students and staff to wear masks in district facilities or on the system’s buses.

The south metro Atlanta district, which has maintained strict mask protocols throughout the pandemic, said it was changing its policy in response to a new state law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday.

Under the law, school districts can still have mask mandates. But they must allow parents who don’t want their children wearing masks to opt out of any mandate.

“It is a common sense measure that puts parents in charge — not the government,” Kemp said before signing the law.

Clayton was the only major metro Atlanta school district with a mask mandate when the new law went into effect. Its new policy makes masks optional.

“Parents/guardians still have the option to send their children to our schools with face coverings if they feel that is the best course of action to protect their health,” Superintendent Morcease Beasley said in a news release. “This goes for our employees as they continue to work daily on our campuses.”

ExploreKemp signs bill letting parents opt kids out of school mask mandates

The move comes as the district recorded six coronavirus cases among staff and students for the week ending March 25. This school year, the district’s highest count — 827 — was recorded in early January. Overall, the district has documented more than 3,500 COVID-19 cases since August.

Beasley has been firm in his support of masking and other measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Students returned to in-class teaching later than other districts in metro Atlanta. The district also kept mask restrictions in place last fall when other school systems were dropping them as COVID-19 infection numbers fell.

ExploreClayton school employees to get $2,000 bonuses in April

“It is no secret that our leadership has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic with one mission — to protect the well-being of our students and their families as well as our employees and their families,” he said. “We have used data and guidelines as provided by local, state, and federal officials in making the decisions to accomplish this.”

Beasley said Kemp’s signing of the “opt out” legislation created a mandate and that the decision impedes local control. He also said he worries about its impact as fewer than half of eligible Clayton County residents have been vaccinated.

“It is important to note that we remain very concerned regarding the vaccination rate in Clayton County, which at last report stands at 46% of residents receiving two doses of the vaccine,” he said.