Kemp criticizes Atlanta school district while at teacher vaccine site

Gov. Brian Kemp addresses reporters after touring a vaccination site at Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth on March 8, 2021. (Daniel Varnado for The AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Gov. Brian Kemp addresses reporters after touring a vaccination site at Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth on March 8, 2021. (Daniel Varnado for The AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Gov. Brian Kemp praised Gwinnett County Public Schools for getting hundreds of employees vaccinated Monday, the first day they were eligible, after a tour of the county’s mass vaccination site near Duluth.

Then he took aim at Atlanta Public Schools during a news conference after the tour at the Gwinnett Place Mall.

Kemp said APS played politics when the school board in early February called on the state to prioritize vaccines for teachers. Now that teachers are eligible for vaccines, APS isn’t holding an event until later this month.

“Atlanta Public Schools board sent me a letter demanding that teachers needed to be vaccinated when they knew dang well I couldn’t do that. We didn’t have the supply to do that,” he said. “It was pandemic politics at its best, and now they’re going to wait two or three weeks. I believe that they’re doing a disservice to their teachers.”

In a statement, the school district called the governor’s comments unfortunate and said they don’t “reflect the planning, advocacy and commitment” the district has done “to protect its students and staff.”

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Eight metro Atlanta districts have reported more than 13,500 COVID-19 cases since the school year began.

All school employees in Georgia — about 250,000 total — became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines Monday under the state’s rollout plan.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Kimberly Renshaw, a sixth-grade math teacher at Hull Middle School said at the Duluth event. “I’ll feel even better when I get the second shot.”

The discovery of more contagious variants of the coronavirus adds urgency to the vaccination efforts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned Friday that the state confirmed its first case of the coronavirus variant that first emerged in South Africa. By Monday, the total number rose to three.

The highly contagious coronavirus variant originally discovered in the United Kingdom also continues to spread in the state, with the number of confirmed cases swelling to 155 as of Friday, according to the state Department of Public Health (DPH). Scientists are especially worried about the variant first detected in South Africa because it may spread more easily, dodge a person’s immune system and affect how well vaccines work.

The Atlanta school district announced Friday that it will vaccinate up to 8,000 people at three mass vaccination events in coordination with the Fulton County Board of Health. Employees will get the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 24, 26 and 27 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

APS Superintendent Lisa Herring said in a written statement that the mass events will allow all employees to be vaccinated “over a short period” when a large allotment is available in the county.

Fulton County Schools also will offer vaccinations starting March 22 at the stadium.

The Gwinnett, Newton & Rockdale County Health Department is administering vaccines to 600 employees of Gwinnett County Public Schools per day, six days a week for at least two weeks at the Gwinnett Place mass vaccination site.

Paul Kable, an auto collision repair teacher at Maxwell High School of Technology, said Monday his hands-on classes don’t always allow for social distancing.

“I’m glad they went ahead and opened it so teachers can go ahead and get the vaccine,” he said.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Appointments are spaced out so fewer than 10 teachers are missing from most individual Gwinnett schools at a given time. Bus drivers and cafeteria staff will get their shots on Saturdays.

Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, has about 25,000 employees, including part-time and active substitute workers. Slightly more than half told the district in a survey that they were interested in getting vaccinated through the county health department.

Elsewhere in the state, about 750 educators in Oconee County Schools received the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. The school district partnered with Piedmont Athens Regional to administer vaccines to K-12 employees and staff at the hospital’s Watkinsville health campus.

Educators will receive the second dose next month. Oconee County Schools reopened for both in-person instruction and distance learning on August 5 and have remained open throughout the full school year.

Lauren Lee, a counselor at Colham Ferry Elementary, was in tears after she received the vaccine. She is most looking forward to seeing the faces of students again, as it has become increasingly difficult to connect with students on an emotional level from a distance.

”It’s an answered prayer,” Lee said. “It’s been a year of uncertainty and heartbreak. I know it’s not the end of the pandemic, but it feels like a resolution to a lot of that stress.

Helena Oliviero contributed to this report.