COVID-19 vaccines headed to Georgia school teachers, staff

Local schools in Georgia are gearing up to give teachers and staff doses of COVID-19 vaccine starting next week using a mix of on-campus curbside administration, large-scale distribution events and help from health clinics.

Teachers and school staff will be eligible for the vaccine and have first dibs next week at an 83,000-dose shipment of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, as well as remaining supplies of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, according to state officials.

Many school districts plan to inoculate teachers and staff who want the vaccine late next week and over the weekend, aiming to give them some recovery time in the event of possible mild side effects such as temporary flu-like symptoms and pain where the shot was given.

State officials are letting local school administrators decide their own logistics for administering vaccines rather than imposing state rules, marking an approach that several local superintendents praised at a meeting Thursday to outline plans for providing shots and boosting confidence among hesitant teachers.

“We really appreciate the trust in us to develop plans to work for our system,” said Dougherty County School System Superintendent Kenneth Dyer.

Atlanta Public Schools, where about 66% of staff have said they want the vaccine, has asked for more than 800,000 doses and plans to hold a “vaccination event” later this month to administer them, said Superintendent Lisa Herring.

Other districts like Calhoun City Schools and Henry County Schools are set to conduct on-campus vaccine events via curbside shots and in school buildings with nurses trained to administer the vaccines.

Cherokee County schools plan to host an “arena-style” vaccine event next Thursday and Friday with help from the local health department to the roughly 50% of the district’s teachers who have shown willingness to take the vaccine, said Superintendent Brian Hightower.

“We’re ready to have this event and make it a successful event, and at the same time continue instruction in our schools” Hightower said. “We want not only our schools to be open but we want them to remain open.”

The school rollout comes after Gov. Brian Kemp last week expanded who is eligible for the vaccine to teachers, school staff, adults with behavioral and developmental disabilities and the parents of children with complex medical conditions. Those groups may start receiving the vaccine on Monday.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods said vaccinating teachers and staff is critical to returning all Georgia K-12 students to in-person classes. Currently, around 30% of students are still receiving online-only instruction, he said.

“We’re looking at how we can make a significant dent in the last third of the school year,” Woods said. “We still have work to do but it’s a big opportunity for us as a state to look forward and be prepared.”

“It’s a good day for us as a state.”

Citizen’s arrest repeal in Georgia advances in state House

Thousands gathered outside the State Capitol to protest police brutality and racial injustice as lawmakers met for the 2020 legislative session on June 19, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A repeal of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that still allows people to detain suspected criminals in self-defense scenarios advanced in the state House of Representatives on Thursday.

Legislation repealing the slavery-era citizen’s arrest law comes after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man gunned down near Brunswick last year by two white men who suspected him of burglary and tried to undertake a citizen’s arrest.

Sponsored by Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, the bill has broad support from advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP, as well as state Democratic leaders.

It follows passage of a landmark anti-hate crimes bill in Georgia last year and marks the most significant piece of criminal-justice legislation to emerge so far in the 2021 legislative session that has bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

“We do not want private citizens, untrained, playing police officer,” Reeves said at a House Judiciary (Civil) Committee hearing on Thursday.

The committee passed his bill unanimously and sent it to the full House.

Reeves’ bill would scrap a state law in effect since 1863 that lets private citizens arrest someone who commits a crime in their presence or during an escape attempt, while still permitting off-duty police officers and business owners to detain those believed to have committed a crime on their property.

The changes would not affect Georgia’s self-defense and stand-your-ground laws, which require different legal standards for people to use reasonable force to protect themselves than the broad leeway to detain under the current citizen’s arrest law, Reeves said.

Criminal-justice advocates turned out Thursday to voice support for the bill. The president of the NAACP’s Georgia chapter, Rev. James Woodall, called it “very necessary legislation” that will right longstanding wrongs in Georgia law.

“Ultimately, we think this is a good bill,” Woodall said. “We think it’s good policy and we think it will save lives all across Georgia.”

Marissa Dodson, public policy director for the nonprofit Southern Center for Human Rights, said the bill would end vigilante justice often committed with racist motives that has been allowed to exist in Georgia since during the Civil War.

“We don’t want people to step into the shoes of officers in law enforcement,” Dodson said. “We want people instead to call upon them when it’s necessary.”

Repealing citizen’s arrest is set to be the biggest legislative win this year for Georgia Democrats who have also pressed for clamping down on officer use-of-force tactics, training and accountability after last summer’s nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Five more mass COVID-19 vaccine sites to open in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp talks about five new mass vaccine sites to open in Georgia on March 4, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Five more mass COVID-19 vaccine sites are set to open in Georgia later this month as teachers and school workers land on the eligibility list March 8, Gov. Brian Kemp said on Wednesday.

The additional vaccine sites add to four other locations that opened last month in metro Atlanta, Macon, Albany and Habersham County. The new sites will open in Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow and Washington counties.

The five new sites are scheduled to open on March 17 and administer a minimum of 20,000 doses each week with teachers, adults with behavioral and intellectual disabilities and parents of children with complex medical conditions first in line to receive shots.

“I feel like we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kemp said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

The governor traced his optimism to the more-than 2 million vaccines given so far in Georgia and a coming boost of 83,000 weekly doses from the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That will bring Georgia’s weekly vaccine shipments to 223,000 doses starting next week.

State officials have faced criticism for Georgia’s slow vaccine distribution since the initial two-dose vaccines started rolling out in December. Kemp has pinned the slow pace to tight vaccine supplies from the federal government.

Batting down criticism on Wednesday, Kemp said more than 860,000 Georgians ages 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far, marking about 60% of that vulnerable population.

“I believe that we have done more than most any other state to protect those that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 with the limited supply that has been given to us by the federal government,” Kemp said.

He added state officials are now set to helping local school districts work through how to divvy up vaccines to teachers and staff starting next week. State School Superintendent Richard Woods is set to meet with about a dozen district superintendents about vaccine distribution on Thursday.

The new vaccine sites and shipments come as COVID-19 positive case rates and hospitalizations continue to drop after a spike over the winter holiday season.

Roughly 823,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Wednesday afternoon, with nearly 192,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 15,349 Georgians.

The new mass-vaccination sites will be open at the following locations:

  • Gulfstream Aerospace: 500 Gulfstream Road, Savannah, GA 31408
  • Columbus Civic Center: 400 4th Street, Columbus, GA 31901
  • LakePoint Sports Complex: 261 Stars Way, Emerson, GA 30121
  • Sandersville Word of Life Church: 1214 South Harris St., Sandersville, GA 31082
  • Waycross Mall: 2215 Memorial Drive, Waycross, GA 31501

The four mass sites already open include:

  • Delta Flight Museum: 1220 Woolman Place SW, Hapeville, GA 30354
  • Habersham County Fairgrounds: 4235 Toccoa Highway, Clarkesville, GA 30523
  • Macon Farmers Market: 2055 Eisenhower Parkway, Macon, GA 31206
  • Albany branch of the Georgia Forestry Commission: 2910 Newton Road, Albany, GA 31701

Special-needs scholarships boost clears Georgia Senate, panned as vouchers

Legislation aimed at providing special-needs students with state-funded scholarships to attend public schools in Georgia that critics have called a costly voucher plan passed out of the state Senate on Wednesday.

Sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the bill – which passed 30-23 nearly along party lines – would make special-needs scholarships available for students with a wide range of conditions including autism, Down syndrome, behavioral impairments and drug or alcohol abuse.

Students would have to be enrolled in Georgia public schools for at least a year unless they were adopted children, come from military families or faced challenges with online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gooch said.

“We believe that during this pandemic and this national emergency, we should not punish the child or the parent, especially those with special needs who were impacted the worst during the lockdown last year,” Gooch said from the Senate floor on Wednesday.

“This is not an open voucher system for Georgia,” he said. “This is limited to special needs children.”

Opponents likened Gooch’s bill to school voucher plans that draw criticism as a drain on state funding for K-12 public schools.

Savvy high-income families could take advantage of loose requirements and oversight in Gooch’s proposal, potentially securing special-needs qualifications with a doctor’s note, said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.

“Families with the resources, the know-how and who live in proximity to private schools will be the beneficiaries of the expanded eligibility, while rural and working-class taxpayers will be left footing the bill for a program whose ultimate cost we can’t even accurately tabulate,” Parent said.

“These voucher programs are bad for kids, bad for families, bad for schools and bad for Georgia.”

Gooch and other supporters dismissed the notion scholarships would be harvested by wealthy families that game the system, stressing the focus is on boosting educational opportunities for special-needs children in Georgia.

The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives.

School-sports bill slammed by transgender advocates moves in Georgia Senate

Legislation aimed at separating Georgia school sports teams between children assigned male or female at birth advanced in the state Senate Wednesday amid criticism it discriminates against transgender persons.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, would bar “biological boys” from playing in school sports against “biological girls,” using language that transgender advocates say discriminates against LGBTQ persons.

It is one of three bills before the General Assembly that would require similar school-sports gender separations in Georgia that define gender as biological sex and allow lawsuits against schools that defy splitting up different-gendered student athletes.

Backers of Harbin’s bill and two others by state Reps. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg, and Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, argue the proposed sports split-up is needed to protect fairness in girls’ sports and prevent male student athletes from taking female athletes’ scholarships.

“Unfortunately, boys have certain biological advantages when it comes to sports that make it impossible for competition to be fair if both genders are competing in the same sport,” Harbin said at a Senate Education and Youth Committee hearing on Wednesday.

“Forcing girls to play against biological males limits the ability of young women in the state of Georgia to win competitions, receive scholarships and to achieve the highest level of success in their sports.”

LGBTQ advocates have called that reasoning a smokescreen to trample on transgender rights and ostracize transgender students who already face large obstacles. They also oppose conflating gender with sex, citing research that disputes equating a person’s sexual identity with their sex organs.

Requiring transgender girls to join boys’ teams after years of playing on girls’ teams could expose them to traumatic taunting from parents and male students to the point that transgender athletes simply quit playing sports, said Jen Slipakoff, a Kennesaw mother whose transgender daughter plays school sports.

“If she doesn’t belong on the boys’ team and she doesn’t belong on the girls’ team, where exactly do you think she belongs?” Slipakoff said. “Can you tell me she belongs somewhere?”

“Or do you think she doesn’t belong anywhere? Because that is what passing this bill will tell her.”

Supporters of the bill have largely dismissed concerns the team restrictions could harm transgender girls, stressing that the measure’s aim is to bolster fair competition for female student athletes in Georgia.

“I’m super concerned that we would put our girls in Georgia at risk of losing scholarships by not handling this in a timely manner,” said Virginia Galloway, regional field director of the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“Based on reality, I would say we need to pass this bill and protect sports for women.”

Harbin’s bill passed out of the committee by a 5-3 vote along party lines and now heads to the full Senate.

Voting in favor were Republican Sens. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas; Matt Brass, R-Newnan; Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta; and Sheila McNeill, R-Brunswick.

Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta; Lester Jackson, D-Savannah; and Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.