The decision drew immediate backlash from some Democrats and school officials who worried about the threat of new outbreaks when students return in the fall. Kids under 12 years old aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, and only a small number of Georgia teenagers have been inoculated.
But many Georgia school districts have already taken a “mask-optional” approach, particularly outside of metro Atlanta, and recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that loosens mask recommendations for vaccinated people has only hastened the shift.
The governor’s order is just one of several that directly involve public school policies, which Georgia Republicans generally believe should be governed by local control. In the past week, he has also pushed schools not to teach “critical race theory” and specifically banned administrators from requiring students and employees to get coronavirus vaccines.
Kemp has wrestled with mask mandates and other virus restrictions throughout the pandemic. After long opposing face-covering requirements, Kemp signed an order in August after a drawn-out legal battle that allowed some local governments to implement the mandates.
Throughout the health crisis, Kemp ruled out ordering Georgia schools to impose the mask requirements, instead preferring to allow local officials to decide. Many of the state’s 181 public school systems initially required students to wear face coverings for in-person learning, though dozens of districts outside of metro Atlanta have rolled back the requirements since January.
Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
Georgia’s fight against the pandemic has dramatically improved as the vaccine became widely available. Hospitalizations have plummeted in recent months, and more than 3.2 million Georgians — or roughly one-third of the state — have been inoculated.
But some public health experts warn of the risk of new cases fueled by emerging variants, particularly from virus-ravaged India. School officials also worry about the threat of more outbreaks among a student population that is still largely unvaccinated. Two Clayton County schools were recently forced to return to remote learning because of new infections.
Seven metro Atlanta districts have reported nearly 17,000 cases of COVID-19 among teachers and staff this school year. The districts are: Atlanta, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette, Fulton and Gwinnett.
“Local school districts know better than Brian Kemp does, and his directive hampers their ability to make the best decisions for their schools, educators and students,” said Jason Esteves, who chairs the Atlanta Public Schools board.
“This is nothing more than a political stunt at a time when Georgians deserve real leadership to help us emerge from the pandemic,” added Esteves, who is also a senior officer of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
Several Democratic officials and legal scholars also questioned how Kemp’s administration would frame the order, which is expected to be signed within a week. Anthony Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, said it was “questionably unconstitutional.”
“The governor doesn’t have the inherent authority to dictate local school policies unilaterally,” he said. “I am unaware of any statute that would empower him to usurp power delegated to school authorities.”
The Georgia Department of Education is not tracking local mask policies, so there is no data indicating how many still mandate them rather than leaving the decision to families. But Robert Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, said that in his experience district mask mandates are rare.
“I know of a couple, but for the most part it’s ‘strongly encouraged,’ ” he said, referring to the typical mask language used by schools.
One of a handful of districts still requiring masks is Decatur, where school ends this week. April Biagioni, a parent who serves on the district’s COVID-19 mitigation committee, said Decatur’s plan currently calls for mandatory masks in the fall.
”We knew this was coming down the line since this has all been politicized,” said Biagioni, whose three kids will be enrolled in the fall but are too young to be vaccinated. She plans to have them attend online, and she predicted that schools with unvaccinated children will see more infections, possibly from variants of the disease, as a result of Kemp’s order.
”I’m not shocked,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”
Other parents reacted with a shrug.
”For Oconee County schools it matters not because they have never considered mandating masks, and we’re out of school now,” said John Phillips, the father of two students in the northeast Georgia county.
Though the governor’s order will take effect at the tail end of the school year, it’s aimed at administrators preparing for summer courses and a return to classes in the fall.
It’s part of a spate of moves to shore up the conservative base before the 2022 election as he faces pressure from former Democrat Vernon Jones, who issued a similar call to ban mask mandates earlier this month.
In recent weeks, Kemp has outlawed state agencies from requiring so-called “vaccine passports,” signed an overhaul of elections that included new voting restrictions and toured a section of the U.S. border with Mexico. On Thursday, he summarized his stance on mask mandates on social media.
“Georgians don’t need the government telling them what their children should do,” Kemp said.
Staff writers Kristal Dixon, Alia Malik, Vanessa McCray, Leon Stafford and Ty Tagami contributed to this article.
Local school districts react to Kemp’s decision
Atlanta Public Schools
Atlanta Public Schools is preparing to launch its summer school program next week and requires masks in buildings. A district spokesman declined to say whether Atlanta schools will try to require masks after the governor makes a move to ban such mandates.
In a written statement, APS said that it “continues to implement our comprehensive, multi-layered COVID-19 health strategy in our schools and buildings, which includes surveillance testing, temperature checks, the wearing of masks and encouraging student and staff vaccinations.”
― Vanessa McCray
Clayton County Schools
Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley said the district will “adhere to whatever the law requires” as administrators plan for the next school year.
“The focus of the district is solely on ensuring our students, employees and community remain safe,” Beasley said. “We will ensure this safety within the parameters of what is allowable and best for our students, employees and community.”
― Leon Stafford
Cobb County Schools
In a statement, a district spokesman said officials “look forward to receiving further detail directly from the Governor’s Office.” Cobb administrators had previously indicated the district would be “mask optional” for the next school year.
― Kristal Dixon
Cherokee County Schools:
Cherokee has relaxed its mask mandate. The mandate for employees remains if they are unvaccinated and cannot practice social distancing, but vaccinated employees were exempted last week. There was never a broad mask mandate for all students. A mandate for students in special circumstances remains, such as when singing in chorus or working in food or health care science labs. The district says it is following public health guidance in allowing employees and students to shorten quarantine durations and return to school provided they wear masks.
― Ty Tagami
DeKalb County Schools
A spokesperson said the mask policy is now under review but that the county will continue to follow “recommended guidelines” from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“To date, the CDC recommends schools continue to use the current COVID-19 strategies for the 2020-2021 school year,” read the statement.
― Kristal Dixon
Fayette County Schools
A spokesman said the school district had no immediate comment.
Fulton County Schools
Fulton County Schools spokesman Brian Noyes said Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision won’t affect the plans of the state’s fourth-largest district.
Fulton announced last week that, starting Tuesday, masks would no longer be required inside buildings. While the school year is over, the district will run in-person summer programs in June and July.
Fulton officials said that the decision was influenced by recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks in most situations.
The CDC later clarified that schools should maintain COVID-19 mitigation efforts through the end of the school year. Fulton officials said it was impractical for the district to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, and they said masks would be recommended but not required.
― Vanessa McCray
Forsyth County Schools
Forsyth schools have no mask mandate.
Gwinnett County Schools
Sloan Roach, Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman, said: “It’s premature to comment because we don’t know what all would be included in such an executive order. But once we have the chance to review it, we will determine how best to implement the direction provided.”
As things stand, the school district has a mask mandate in place for in-person students and employees, including for summer school when it begins June 14.
― Alia Malik
Henry County Schools
Henry County adopted a plan for a “mask-optional” school year in the fall, and Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis said officials will “continue to review and comply” with the governor’s directive.
― Leon Stafford