Gov. Brian Kemp said Friday he favors resuming in-person classes for Georgia students instead of remote learning methods ahead of the upcoming school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor also doubled down on his opposition to mask mandates in Georgia even as he urged people to wear them for the next several weeks to help curb a recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
At a news conference Friday morning, Kemp and other state officials highlighted new guidance for schools on how to reopen classrooms in the fall and respond when a student or teacher is infected.
The governor said he understands fears over returning to school with the virus still spreading but that students risk losing valuable learning and social growth opportunities by remaining at home after in-person classes were canceled statewide in March and students switched to online studies.
“I am a believer that kids need to be in the classroom,” Kemp said. “And we’re working with the schools on doing that.”
Kemp’s comments came shortly after he and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr filed suit to block a mask mandate in Atlanta as well as moves by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to reimpose certain stay-at-home and business closures lifted in May.
Reiterating his position, Kemp called city and county mask mandates “unenforceable” and pressed Georgians – especially young people – to “do the right thing” by voluntarily wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and following statewide business restrictions.
“We can argue about a mandate for masks or not,” Kemp said. “But all the people arguing agree that we should wear a mask.”
On Friday, Kemp and other officials noted they talked with top national health experts this week about how to safely reopen schools in the coming weeks.
The state Department of Education has issued guidelines and recommendations aimed at helping local school districts decide how to hold classes in the fall via a mix of regular in-person classes and online instruction options.
State School Superintendent Richard Woods agreed students would be better served returning to school as normal but that his focus is on student, teacher and staff safety.
“The first day of school will be the first day of school,” Woods said Friday. “You can expect hiccups. You can expect challenges. But I guarantee your kids will be safe, your teachers will be safe and we will learn.”
School and health officials are also focusing on how to avoid the need to shut down a school in the event a student tests positive or there is a minor outbreak, said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner.
She said epidemiologists working one-on-one with schools would help guide that decision, factoring in a classroom’s size and the extent of a person’s exposure to others in the school.
“We will make those decisions based on the situations in every school,” Toomey said. “Every situation will be different.”
Already, around 2 million masks and 3,000 infrared thermometers have been shipped to schools across Georgia, said the state’s emergency management director, Homer Bryson.
The state also plans to send schools another batch of safety and sanitizing gear including 1.5 million youth-size cloth masks, 1 million disposable masks, thousands of hand sanitizing stations, gallons of gel and wipes, and 100,000 clear masks for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and teachers, Bryson said.
Per the guidelines and governor’s orders, students would not be required to wear masks but they would be “strongly recommended” to do so, particularly when in close quarters.