ATLANTA - Gov. Brian Kemp has officially signed an executive order preventing Georgia public schools from requiring any students, teachers, and staff members to wear masks. That goes into place on June 1.
The Republican governor’s written order came two days after Kemp gave a preview in a Fox News Channel interview Wednesday, declaring: "The time for mandates is over."
"We’re not going to have a mask mandate for our kids," Kemp said. "Our teachers have had the ability to get vaccinated. It certainly doesn’t keep anyone from wearing a mask."
The actual order adjusting Georgia’s few remaining coronavirus restrictions isn’t so strongly worded.
Instead, Kemp’s order says his COVID-19 emergency declaration "does not include the authority for local school districts to rely on the Public Health State of Emergency as a basis for requiring students or workers to wear a face covering" on school campuses.
In other words, Georgia school districts can no longer claim their authority to require masks comes from the governor.
Several school districts have expressed surprise at the move and one major metro Atlanta school district said it plans to ignore the order.
The Atlanta Public Schools said Friday it has 11,000 children enrolled in summer schools and they want to keep them masked up.
"11,000 kids, they're returning to campus, some of whom are returning for the first time since March of 2020. so we want to make sure those students are protected, they have not been able to get vaccinated yet. So, we're going to continue things like the masking requirement, surveillance testing, and encouraging the vaccine for those who are eligible," APS Board Chairman Jason Esteves said.
The district said it plans to keep the masks as part of its dress code.
"All I know is we are going to be continued to be focused on our students and our teachers. That's what matters most to us. And that's why we are going to continue what we've been doing," Esteves said.
Esteves said he credits the mask mandate for the district not having to close a single school during the past year. He said the mandate will stay in place mainly because children under 12 are still not eligible for a vaccine.
"We still don't have herd immunity in Georgia. We're still a long ways away from that. Only a few percentage points of our students in the entire state have gotten vaccinated. So, they're not protected yet and until we get to that point we'll have to continue to implement mitigation strategies," Esteves said.
Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said the governor’s prior emergency orders during the pandemic explicitly granted school systems the authority to require masks if they chose to. Kemp’s new order rescinds that power at the end of May.
Hall declined to comment on whether the state would try to stop school systems that want to keep mask mandates in place. Many have already ended classes for summer break.
If any school boards choose to continue mask mandates, Hall said, "that’s absolutely something they’ll be hearing from their public, staff, parents and students about."
Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, said school boards can likely require teachers and students to wear masks without the governor’s permission, much like they impose dress codes.
"He does not have broad-reaching, unilateral powers in the Georgia constitution to usurp the power of local school boards," Kreis said. "I think what he’s done here is basically removed himself from the calculus, punted this as a political issue back to the local school boards and said, `I don’t want you to do this and you can’t use me as your justification.’"
Mask mandates have been unpopular with some parents, leading to angry scenes at school board meetings and even lawsuits. Those who oppose them have largely been white and Republican.
Children younger than 12 are not eligible to receive any coronavirus vaccine, meaning typically no students are vaccinated in fifth grade and lower. Vaccination progress thus far has been slow among students 12 and older who are eligible.
Although 7.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine overall have been administered in Georgia, it continues to be among the 10 lowest states for vaccination rates nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Georgia Department of Public Health said that 3,310,889 Georgians were fully vaccinated as of Friday at 3 p.m. That is about a third of those eligible in the state, according to the numbers provided by the US Census.
Daily coronavirus infections in Georgia averaged 397 for the seven-day period ending Friday, their lowest level since late March 2020. Deaths are still inching up in the state, which passed 18,000 confirmed virus deaths Thursday.
Kemp is running for reelection in 2022 and has been taking steps to shore up support among Republican voters still restive over claims that Kemp didn’t do enough to overturn President Joe Biden’s election victory in Georgia. In the past 10 days, he has also issued an order that says public agencies in Georgia can’t require people to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and sent a letter to the state Board of Education urging members to ban public schools from certain teachings about race.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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