OPINION: Why isn’t the General Assembly talking more about schools and COVID?

So far this year, members of the Georgia General Assembly have debated and passed legislation about Daylight Savings Time, sports betting, a state income tax cut, and allowing visitors in nursing homes and hospitals.

They’ve also passed a midyear budget and plowed through so many bills to change elections in Georgia (70 so far) that it’s nearly impossible to keep track.

But an issue that’s gotten comparatively little attention is the future of Georgia’s 1.7 million students, who were all sent home from school a year ago this week and, in some cases, have never returned.

In Metro Atlanta, just like the entire state, getting back into classrooms has varied from county to county, and then by school district, grade and even family.

While Gwinnett and Cobb Counties began staggered returns to the classroom in August, DeKalb just reopened, and only for some students, this week.

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Clayton County Schools, with 55,000 students, are among the handful in the state that are still closed, but will re-open next month. Clay County Schools, near the Alabama border with just over 350 students, will go to a hybrid model next week.

The future for schools gives teachers and families more questions than answers.

What’s the plan to address learning loss for the youngest students or emotional crises for the older ones? What about the fall, when more teachers will be vaccinated, but most students likely won’t be? Should COVID vaccinations be required to attend class as other vaccines already are? Do schools need mask mandates?

Ask legislators why more hasn’t been done related to schools this session, and you’re likely to hear about local control, the very real grant of power that the Georgia constitution gives to school districts, not legislators, for decisions at the local level.

Unlike other local control issues that the legislature has waded into this year, including a bill to bar cities and counties from reducing their police department budgets, or the dozens of bills telling counties how to count votes in elections, the Georgia Constitution gives authority over schools to local districts.

State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, is the new chairman of the House Education Committee. He said he’s been inundated by calls from parents around the state, mostly from parents “begging for their kids to be back at school.”

“But I have to tell them between the governor’s office and general guidelines that exist for the state of Georgia and local school districts being just that, local, there’s not much that we as a committee or that your state representative can do to change that.”

Dubnik is right, of course, but before he took over the committee, legislators managed to noodle in schools quite a bit.

In 2019 alone, lawmakers passed bills to require mandatory dyslexia screening for all kindergartners, to institute “mass casualty” safety drills in schools, and to place posters in schools about child abuse with a designated phone number on them.

They even mandated a 30-minute recess in elementary schools, which Gov. Kemp vetoed citing local control concerns.

Political dynamics, rather than legal constraints, may be helping the issue fall through the cracks. For Republican leaders in conservative areas of the state, most schools opened in person in August and have stayed open.

In urban areas, where schools are just re-opening, lawmakers have been caught in the middle between parents who wanted a return to school, teachers, wary of being back in the classroom, and school districts, which prefer, by and large, to operate without state mandates or interference.

But those politics don’t matter a bit to the many, many kids who are falling behind, struggling in virtual class or trying to keep up with others when they’re back at school.

The good news for those students and the teachers and parents who care about them is that money, for once, will not be an obstacle to making this situation better.

Along with the aid for schools in the previous CARES Act, the COVID relief package that passed Congress this week will provide more than $4 billion in funding for Georgia schools, including a portion specifically set aside for extra help for kids who have fallen behind, including tutoring and summer school.

But without knowing how and whether those efforts are going to work, what comes next looks like it’s going to be an issue for the next legislative session.

“One of the greatest predictors of outcomes in a child’s life is ‘Can you read on grade level by third grade?” Rep. Dubnik said. “But how can we tackle that when we don’t even know what kind of effect all of this will have?”

Dubnik said he’s committed to dealing with the pandemic’s effects on Georgia students “today, tomorrow, and forever.”

But it seems like the bulk of the other legislators have spent the better part of this session focused on solving a problem that many believe does not exist. But they’ve hardly talked about a crisis that hundreds of thousands of Georgians are living every day.

The COVID pandemic isn’t anyone’s fault. But a failure to make sure Georgia’s kids recover from it academically and emotionally will be.

Lawmakers have one week left this session if they want to do anything about it.

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