Republican Sen. Clint Dixon presented Gov. Brian Kemp’s bill on Tuesday, which the Gwinnett legislator said would give parents more control over the “misguided politics” of public school mask mandates. The bill allows parents to opt their children out of mask requirements for the next five years. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
The Georgia Senate signed off Tuesday on Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to allow parents of public school students to opt out of mask requirements, as Republicans legislators complained that local mandates in dozens districts are an overreach.
Kemp’s “Unmask Georgia Students Act” supporters say the measure protects parents’ rights to make decisions about their children’s health and education. The bill is now set to head over to the House, where its chamber’s GOP legislators are also expected to usher the controversial bill to the governor’s desk where he seems sure to sign it.
The legislation moved forward just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidelines for masks in schools and other public buildings based on the level of risk the virus poses to hospitals. More than 40 Georgia school districts enforce some form of mask requirement. Some are already rolling back their policies, including Atlanta Public Schools, which made face coverings optional on Tuesday for the first time since in-person classes resumed in the COVID-19 era.
The bill that intends to allow parents to opt out of mask requirements was amended Tuesday to remain in effect until June 2027, an extension beyond the prior 2023 sunset. Parents would be able to opt their children out of mask mandates or rules set by local school boards, state charter schools, school superintendents, and other governing bodies if the legislation makes it into law. Kemp’s Senate floor leader, Gwinnett County GOP Sen. Clint Dixon, said the bill does not interfere with a student being able to wear a face covering, but gives parents the option to reject the “misguided politics” of the mandate.
“Masking prevents students and teachers from hearing each other, masks hinder instruction and student progress, masks slow the development of social skills in early grades,” Dixon said. “Masks further a sense of disconnect and masks do not provide the quality of protection we were initially led to believe.”
Democratic lawmakers said the bill would undermine local school boards’ ability to enforce mandates that can prevent the spread of viruses that could temporarily shut down schools.
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Sen. Donzella James, a retired teacher and Democrat from Atlanta, says she’s still dealing with health complications a year after being hospitalized due to COVID-19, and believes SB 514 fails to recognize the importance of masks to protect students, teachers, and other staff.
“We need it more than ever now because it still exists,” James said. “So don’t let the numbers escalate again, because that’s the body bags going out of these hospitals.”
The CDC now says that more than 70% of U.S. residents live in lower risk communities that don’t require masks indoors. In others, where risks are higher, the organization recommends that students continue to wear face coverings.
A CDC map from Feb. 24 lists about 50 Georgia counties as high risk, with the largest clusters around north and south Georgia.
Mask skeptics said Tuesday that public health organizations have different guidelines regarding the appropriate ages for mask use and whether they might hinder learning and psychological development.
“We have gone overboard in the masking of children who are statistically at little to no risk of death from COVID,” Cumming Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal said.
Democrats contend that the bill stems from misinformation about mask effectiveness dating back to the onset of the pandemic two years ago. The bill would limit local school officials’ authority to enforce policies for the next five years, Stone Mountain Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson said.
“Can you guarantee me that we will not have another global pandemic that is transmitted from breathing, a respiratory pandemic that will not begin before your sunset period ends,” she said.
Republican Sen. Ben Watson, a physician from Savannah, countered that federal and state emergency declarations can override the bill if it’s considered necessary to protect the public.
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