Kemp rules out statewide order requiring masks at Georgia schools

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, greets U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams before the start of a press conference Monday at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic located in a paid parking facility at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Both Kemp and Adams encouraged Georgians to where face coverings to combat the spread of COVID-19, but the governor refused to order Georgia's 180 school districts to impose mask mandates.  (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gov. Brian Kemp, left, greets U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams before the start of a press conference Monday at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic located in a paid parking facility at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Both Kemp and Adams encouraged Georgians to where face coverings to combat the spread of COVID-19, but the governor refused to order Georgia's 180 school districts to impose mask mandates. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Gov says school opening went 'really well' aside from viral photos

Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday ruled out ordering public school systems to impose mask mandates for returning students and teachers, echoing his preference that local education officials decide whether to require face coverings to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Kemp, speaking at the opening of a testing site at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said he was confident that school superintendents can make their own decisions about whether masks are necessary in their districts as he continued to encourage but not require their use.

“We’ve given the responsibility to the schools, to the local superintendents,” Kemp said. “Like most things in education, I’m a firm believer that the local governments know their schools better than the state government does.”

Kemp’s approach to mask usage at schools contrasts with his stance on whether local governments can institute restrictions on their own. He filed a lawsuit last month challenging the city of Atlanta’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions, and the outcome could influence more than a dozen other similar ordinances across Georgia.

The governor’s remarks came days after a photo went viral of North Paulding High School students jammed into a hallway in between classes. The school later revealed a half-dozen students and three staffers were diagnosed with COVID-19 and that courses will be held online for at least a few days this week.

Kemp was seconded by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who joined the governor to highlight Georgia’s new testing initiative.

“We find that engagement and education goes a lot further than enforcement,” Adams said. “I’m not against places having to mandate. But what I want people to understand is that a mandate alone will not fix your problem, particularly when you’re dealing with young people.”

The governor has said mask mandates are unnecessary and unenforceable, and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review showed few, if any, citations have been logged. However, his executive order also gives school systems and private businesses leeway to impose mask requirements.

That approach has led to conflicting policies. On the south side of Broad Street in Athens, for instance, the campus of the University of Georgia requires masks. On the north side, the city’s mask mandate ordinance is effectively neutered under Kemp’s order.

State officials say 68 of Georgia’s 180 school districts have mask mandates for teachers, and 43 have imposed the requirements for both students and teachers. Six districts only offer in-person courses; the rest either offer online coursework or a mix of in-person and virtual learning.

Overall, Kemp said, he believes the school reopening “quite honestly this week went real well” aside from the Paulding County photos.

Democrats were sharply critical of Kemp’s school policy. State Rep. Beth Moore, who has been soliciting anonymous tips from students, parent and faculty, said Republicans have been “doubling down and making it worse.“

”The adults in the room where decisions are made aren’t taking this virus seriously — and the people who will suffer from this are our teachers, children and their families,” said Moore, a Democrat from Peachtree Corners.

The fallout over the Paulding County photo came as many Georgia school districts began to reopen their doors. Some are offering families a choice between in-person and online schooling, though the number of systems moving to virtual-only coursework is increasing.

School systems must balance those pressures to reopen with other stark realities. Large swaths of the state, particularly in rural areas, lack high-speed online access. Many students rely on schools for safety-net care such as subsidized meals, counseling, health care and social services.

And a broad cross section of educational leaders, including state Superintendent Richard Woods, have pointed out the shortcomings of the lurch to online school during the onset of the pandemic in March. Among them were inadequate technology and squeezed schedules for virtual learning.

Woods, too, has encouraged schools to mandate the use of masks and other face coverings, particularly in areas such as crowded hallways where social distancing is impossible. Pressed on Woods’ approach, Kemp said he believes it’s best to leave that decision up to local officials.

“We’re encouraging people — we did that again today — to wear your mask,” Kemp said. “I’m confident that superintendents have the tools, the resources and the masks that we’ve given them, as far as the state’s concerned, to be able to handle that at the local level.”

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

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