Kemp orders public K-12 schools, colleges in Georgia closed through end of March

Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the closure of all public elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools in Georgia starting Wednesday through the end of the month as the state scrambles to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor announced the closure of K-12 schools and colleges on the same day state lawmakers voted to ratify a public health emergency that granted him sweeping new powers to suspend state laws and restrict travel. 

Many of Georgia’s classrooms have already shuttered voluntarily.

School districts accounting for more than 1.7 million of Georgia's 1.8 million students had already suspended classes, though some rural schools have remained open. And most Georgia colleges shifted to online coursework last week.

Shortly after Kemp's announcement, the University System of Georgia said that all of its 26 colleges and universities will conduct online instruction for the rest of the semester, with "extremely limited exceptions."

Kemp’s order, combined with the emergency declaration, signaled a change in strategy.

Until now, the Republican largely resisted mandating restrictions on large gatherings, schools or businesses to respond to an outbreak that’s sickened at least 121 Georgians and killed one.

Instead, he issued a "call to action" encouraging community leaders to scrap events, pleaded with Georgians to "incorporate social distancing" and urged school administrators to consider shutting their doors.

The governor’s office said Kemp could have ordered the schools closed without the unprecedented authority that lawmakers approved on Monday.

In a statement, he said closing schools and colleges through March 31 was “critical to reducing local transmission in communities across our state.”

“I ask Georgians to continue to follow best practices - washing their hands regularly, isolating the elderly and chronically ill, and avoiding large events if possible - in the days and weeks ahead,” said Kemp.