During an election year, everything is fair game and every place is a potential battleground.
That is clearly evident when the Georgia General Assembly is in session.
As an incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp is facing an unprecedented challenge for his seat from his own party – and a popular Democrat challenger waiting in the wings.
Kemp decided this week to choose Georgia’s classrooms for his latest battleground with the introduction of Senate Bill 514.
Having previously said he supported the local school districts to decide mask mandates. However, if Kemp’s bill passes it would allow parents to decide if their child should wear a mask in the classroom through June 23, 2023.
The bill states that school districts couldn’t require face coverings unless parents could opt their children without giving a reason. It also states that no student can be disciplined or get a worse grade if their parent says they don’t have to wear a mask. The measure was introduced by Republican Sen. Clint Dixon of Buford.
“We’ve got to continue to move back to more normal operations,” Kemp said during a news conference. “We trust our parents every day on whether to send their kids to school or not, if they’re not feeling well, if they have a fever. We can certainly do that in terms of masks at this point in the pandemic.”
Naturally, the bill has parents and educators against it and for it.
Atlanta Public School system parent Maria Diedrich can’t wait for the bill to pass.
“My kids will be unmasked, day one,” Diedrich, who has three children in APS.
“What have we done to our children to put them in this position of silencing them for two years, and a school board, and a superintendent thinks that’s acceptable and it’s not,” Diedrich said in an interview with CBS 46 Atlanta.
She said that districts are hiding behind data that doesn’t accurately portray the current COVID snapshot in schools.
Although he supports no classroom masks that didn’t stop his leading GOP opponent Perdue from attacking Kemp.
“Brian Kemp only does the right thing when we spell it out first,” Perdue said Monday in a statement. “Why didn’t Kemp stand up for parents’ rights two years ago when this pandemic began?”
Masks in the classrooms became a hotter potato when a photo of an unmasked Stacey Abrams was taken with a Decatur elementary school class where the students were all masked.
Abrams’ campaign initially said she wore a mask to the school and only removed it to be better heard by students watching remotely – and for pictures on the condition that everyone around her kept theirs on. In an interview Tuesday on CNN, Abrams said, “Protocols matter and protecting our kids is the most important thing, and anything that can be perceived as undermining that is a mistake and I apologize.”
Although he never referenced her by name, Kemp did make several references to Abrams.
“I’ve been a local control governor working with our school systems to help get kids in the classrooms. I have great respect for that,” Kemp said. “But I also believe that when you have schools out there that have a mask mandate that then allow visitors to come in unmasked, what is the point?”
Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Abrams, likened Kemp’s actions to when he tried to block cities from imposing mask mandates earlier in the pandemic, an attempt that became embroiled in legal questions about whether Kemp had the power to do so.
“Brian Kemp picked fights with mayors across Georgia who were trying to help keep their people safe, and now it appears he wants to pick fights with schools,” Bringman said in a statement.
Two metro Atlanta teachers (first names only) told The Atlanta Voice they are not happy about the bill or with Kemp.
“The governor is clueless. We have had students exposed or infected with COVID several times this year,” said Bonnie, an elementary school teacher in the Rockdale County public school system.”I have a student quarantined for the third time this school year alone.
“I feel the mandatory masks have been the only thing that has protected me from COVID. Now he wants to lower the guidelines and risk our lives and health? I cannot wait for Election Day to replace him with someone who relies on science to make decisions that will jeopardize everyone involved,” she added.
“I think it’s bull! I understand people may not want to wear a mask, I personally don’t myself, but how are you going to protect people?,” asked Jameria, a teacher in the DeKalb County Public School system.”What will be the protocol for when a child is sick? What is the protocol for when a teacher gets sick? Will we have built in COVID days? How can you make teachers go into a work environment without protection?
A survey by the state Department of Public Health earlier this month showed at least 44 of Georgia’s 180 school districts then required masks in at least one school, as well as at least 16 independent charter schools. The Atlanta Public School System, DeKalb and Rockdale are included in those districts that require mask mandates.
Kemp had earlier discouraged masks but said he would ultimately leave the decision up to local school districts. That’s in keeping with a generally decentralized public education culture in the state.
Georgia last week recorded about 5,800 COVID-19 cases in children ages 5 to 17. That’s down sharply from more than 13,000 the week before, but still far above the roughly 1,000 cases in school-age children that Georgia was recording in early November.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Amy, Associated Press)