Georgia will not tell school districts to require masks, Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday at a new COVID-19 testing site at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta where he was accompanied by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
“We’ve given the responsibility to the schools, to the local systems. Like most things in education, I’m a firm believer that local governments know their schools better than the state government,” Kemp said.
Kemp has encouraged Georgians to wear masks but has resisted calls for a statewide mask requirement. He has squared off against local governments that have attempted to impose their own citywide mask rules, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who he sued last month to stop her city’s mask mandate. The dispute is now in mediation.
Adams echoed Kemp’s mistrust of mandates.
“Time and again in public health, we find that engagement and education get you a lot further than enforcement,” Adams said. “I’ve got two teenage boys. If they don’t understand why I’m telling them to do something, they’re only going to do it while I’m watching,” he said. “I’m not against places having a mandate, but I want people to understand that a mandate alone will not fix your problem, particularly when you’re dealing with young people.”
Kemp’s remarks came after a rocky first week for some Georgia schools. In Cherokee County Schools, which does not require students to wear masks, 826 children and 42 employees were quarantined by the end of classes Monday.
North Paulding High School became nationally notorious after photos from inside the school showed a crowded class transition with mostly maskless students. The student who took the photo was suspended but later had her punishment reversed. On Friday, the school’s principal announced the building will close through at least Tuesday after nine people tested positive for COVID-19.
State Democrats blamed Kemp and President Donald Trump for the schools’ troubles, saying their push to reopen businesses worsened the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
“We know that it did not have to be this bad,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, who also chairs the Georgia Democratic Party. “Back when this pandemic started, Donald Trump and Brian Kemp were warned by public health experts and doctors that without serious action, we would lose safe, in-person schooling in the fall, but instead of reopening schools in August, Brian Kemp reopened bars and bowling alleys in May.”
Pointing toward a decline in case numbers and hospitalizations and an increase in test capacity, Kemp painted a rosier picture of the first week of school.
“There’s definitely going to be issues when you open anything, we saw that when we opened businesses, we see it now when we’re opening schools,” Kemp said. “We’ve given them guidance, we’ve worked with them to give them the tools that they need to open the classroom. I think, quite honestly, this week went real well other than a couple of (viral) photos, but the attitude, from what they’re telling me, is good.”