Georgia school teachers to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine starting March 8

Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled plans to vaccinate Georgia school teachers in a speech at the state Capitol on Feb. 25, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Teachers, school staff and certain other vulnerable groups in Georgia will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting on March 8, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday.

Vaccines will be available for pre-K and K-12 school teachers and staff, Kemp said. Georgia adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as the parents of children who have complex medical conditions, will also be eligible on March 8.

Kemp traced his decision to expand vaccines to teachers on encouraging signs of increasing vaccine production from the Biden administration and the new Johnson & Johnson-brand vaccine that won high safety marks from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week.

“Today, we will be taking another step to protect the most vulnerable and get Georgia back to normal,” Kemp said at a news conference Thursday.

Professors and staff at Georgia colleges and universities will not be on the March 8 list of newly eligible vaccine recipients since they are “dealing with an older population” of adult students who have more options to avoid infection than teachers of younger students in grades pre-K through 12, Kemp said.

The governor stressed he wants all Georgia public schools to return for in-person classes before year’s end as teachers are vaccinated, saying online classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic have dampened students’ education progress for too long.

“Virtual schooling is leaving too many children behind and parents at their wits’ end,” Kemp said. “We must have students back in the classroom, five days a week.”

The upcoming vaccine expansion for teachers drew praise from State School Superintendent Richard Woods, who called it a critical step in returning Georgia kids to in-person schooling.

“This is an important step in ensuring all Georgia students have access to in-person instruction and ensuring the safety of students, staff and families,” Woods said. “It has been an incredibly challenging year for educators and families alike, but I believe we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Teachers and other soon-eligible groups will join health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, first responders and Georgians ages 65 and older who have qualified for the vaccine for several weeks.

Kemp noted Georgia has doled out nearly 1.9 million vaccines so far, including to more than 800,000 people ages 65 and older who have received at least one of the needed two doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Newly eligible teachers and other Georgians clambering for the vaccine could still face headaches in scheduling appointments for their shots given the state’s limited allotment, Kemp said. Currently, state officials are receiving 198,000 doses a week from the federal government.

“We will continue to see more demand than supply,” Kemp said.

If all goes well with the March 8 rollout to teachers, Kemp said he will move to expand vaccine eligibility again in late March to additional groups that tend to be more vulnerable to contracting the virus.

Local school administrators will be largely left to their own to decide how teachers and staff should receive their shots, including whether to host vaccines on-campus at their schools, Kemp said.

State officials are also working with hospitals and health clinics to decide which parents with children who have complex medical conditions will receive the vaccine, said Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

“We are doing that in conjunction with providers who care for those children,” Toomey said on Thursday.

Officials stressed Georgians should go ahead and pre-register now for a vaccine appointment on the state’s sign-up website, even if they are not yet eligible. The website,, will automatically alert people once they’re eligible and will schedule an appointment.

Roughly 812,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Thursday afternoon, with nearly 185,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 14,989 Georgians.

Initial unemployment claims in Georgia continue downward slide

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims fell again in Georgia last week, mirroring a decline in jobless claims nationwide as more and more businesses shut down by the coronavirus pandemic reopen.

Georgians filed 25,447 initial unemployment claims last week, a decrease of 1,085 from the previous week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

As the number of claims in the Peach State continued trending down, Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said his agency is processing claims at rates above the national average. Georgia reports releasing first payments to 75.5% of claimants with initial claims within 21 days, outpacing the national average of 66.4%.

“No state has processed and paid as many claims as we have at a faster pace,” Butler said. “We have received some tough scrutiny lately for the small percentage of claims not paid that may not even be eligible for payment.” 

Still, the General Assembly is looking to give the labor department more help processing claims. The fiscal 2021 mid-year budget Gov. Brian Kemp signed last week includes $49,729 to hire a chief labor officer to oversee unemployment insurance requests, including financial audits.

Legislation authorizing the position is now before the Georgia Senate Industry and Labor Committee.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Georgia, more than $18.7 billion in state and federal benefits have been paid out to more than 4.4 million jobless Georgians, more than during the entire nine years before the virus struck.

The job sector accounting for the most unemployment claims last week was accommodation and food services with 5,520 claims. The administrative and support services sector was next with 3,045 claims, followed by manufacturing with 2,226.

More than 186,000 jobs are listed online at for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs. 

Bill to help convicted Georgians end probation early clears state Senate

A bill to tighten rules for allowing ex-offenders in Georgia to be released early from probation that should help thousands of people maintain jobs and housing passed out of the state Senate on Thursday.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, the bill would let first-time felons in Georgia sentenced to prison for 12 months or fewer seek early termination of their probation after they’ve been released, paid court fines and avoided another run-in with the law for two years.

The bill would allow well-behaving probationers to petition courts for early termination of their supervision terms after three years. Its aim is to cut down Georgia’s highest-in-the-country probation population, Strickland said.

“In Georgia, we should incentivize individuals who make mistakes, serve their time, pay their restitution and stay out of trouble,” Strickland said from the Senate floor.

“We should be helping Georgians who have earned a second chance in life to get a job, buy a house, start a family or accomplish anything else they dream of doing in this state without the stigma of probation hanging over their heads.”

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and now heads to the state House of Representatives.

It follows legislation in 2017 under then-Gov. Nathan Deal aimed at easing rules on terminating probation early. Those changes have not worked as planned, with only a handful of the roughly 50,000 eligible probationers actually being granted early termination as of last year, advocates say.

Many Georgians on probation face lengthy supervision terms lasting at least a decade, limiting their ability to land jobs and maintain steady housing from landlords wary of their status as probationers, said Lisa McGahan, policy director for the nonprofit Georgia Justice Project.

“We know that for people to be successful, they have to have access to economic opportunity [and] they have to have access to employment,” McGahan told lawmakers at a state Senate Judiciary Committee last week. “When you’re serving a very long probation sentence, those two things are mutually exclusive.”

Strickland’s bill marks a priority on Republican state senators’ criminal justice reform agenda in the current legislative session, along with another measure by state Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, that would bar licensing boards from denying business licenses to most Georgians on probation.

Cosponsors of Strickland’s bill include Sens. John Kennedy, R-Macon; Bruce Thompson, R-White; Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia; and Ben Watson, R-Savannah.

Georgia House honors former U.S. Sen. Isakson with bridge naming

Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson

ATLANTA – A bridge over a portion of the Port of Savannah would be named in honor of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., under a resolution the Georgia House of Representatives passed unanimously Thursday.

The bridge on Georgia 307 crosses over the Mason Mega Rail Yard, a $215 million project that, when completed, will give the port enough additional capacity to ship goods to cities in the nation’s Mid-South and Midwest regions.

Isakson helped land federal funding for that project as well as the $1 billion deepening of Savannah Harbor to make room for a new generation of giant containerized cargo ships now calling at the Port of Savannah. Both projects will be key contributors to one of the nation’s fastest-growing ports.

“Johnny Isakson was and is a champion for economic development and job creation,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, the resolution’s chief sponsor, who made a rare appearance in the well of the House chamber to present it. “Senator Isakson believes the best way to help lift our state up is to expand economic opportunity for everyone.”

Isakson, who hails from Cobb County, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999 and moved up to the Senate in 2004. He retired at the end of 2019 for health reasons.

Ralston praised the former senator Thursday for serving as a model of civility, which he said has become an increasingly rare quality in Washington, D.C.

“Senator Isakson only knows people as friends or future friends,” the speaker said. “His example is one we would do well to follow.”

Rep. Steven Meeks, R-Screven, told his House colleagues he got to know Isakson while working as a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill. He said Isakson treated everyone the same, regardless of their status.

“To him, everyone in a room was important,” Meeks said.

The resolution’s cosponsors include House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, and Reps. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon; Ron Stephens, R-Savannah; Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah; and Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City.

The resolution now moves to the state Senate.

Major changes to absentee voting in Georgia elections advance in state House

Lines were sparse outside the Cobb County Regional Library voter precinct through noon on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A wide-ranging bill clamping down on absentee voting in Georgia that has split Republicans and Democrats moved in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The roughly 60-page bill, sponsored by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, contains more than two dozen proposals including a controversial change requiring voters seeking mail-in ballots to provide the number on their driver’s license or state identification card, or photocopies of other valid ID forms.

Fleming’s bill would also restrict ballot-casting on weekends during the three-week early-voting period, scrapping rules for polls to be open on Sundays and instead requiring counties to pick either one Saturday or one Sunday ahead of Election Day for the precincts to be open.

The bill passed the state House Special Committee on Election Integrity, which Fleming chairs, on a party-line vote Wednesday and now heads to the full House for approval.

Fleming’s bill has been panned by Georgia Democrats who call it a measure aimed at suppressing votes after the party’s historic 2020 election wins. Democrat Joe Biden carried Georgia in the Nov. 3 presidential race, and the party won both of the Peach State’s U.S. Senate seats.

Republicans are going all-in to change Georgia’s rules for voting by mail this legislative session, having filed bills in both chambers that would require at least a driver’s license number or other legally-accepted ID to request an absentee ballot – and in some cases, a printed copy of one’s valid ID as well.

The Georgia Senate passed a measure this week by Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, that would require absentee-ballot seekers to provide their driver’s license or state ID number, or if they don’t have those ID forms, then alternatively a copy of their passport, employee ID card, utility bill or bank statement.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, introduced a 25-page bill with nearly two dozen election-focused proposals, including a mandate for Georgia voters to obtain a witness signature and a photo ID copy in the envelopes for absentee ballots mailed back to county elections officials.

That bill, which all but three Republicans in the Senate are co-sponsoring the bill, entails the most dramatic changes for mailing votes in Georgia that stand the best changes of passing this year in the state legislature.

“Recently, many of our citizens have expressed a lack of faith and integrity in our current election systems,” read a statement from the Senate Republican Caucus. “We have heard these concerns voiced by many – and addressing these concerns has been at the forefront of our legislative efforts this year to promote the good of the state.”

Democratic leaders have blasted the GOP-brought bills, framing their opponents’ focus on election integrity as a smokescreen for wooing conservatives still loyal to former President Donald Trump, who unleashed popular – but fundamentally unproven – claims of voter fraud after losing Georgia’s presidential election in November to Biden by 11,779 votes.

“[The] Georgia GOP is hell-bent on suppressing the vote because they can’t win when Georgians vote,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia. “If they wanted to restore confidence in elections, they would work with Democrats to pass common-sense legislation, not help fuel the far-right’s false election fraud narratives.”

Some local Democratic leaders have also pointed out the costs county elections officials could incur by implementing the changes in Fleming’s bill, noting a recent report from the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab that estimates Georgia counties could be forced to spend around $57 million on the changes in the next election cycle.

“Counties should not be held responsible for dangerous unfunded mandates that do nothing to make elections ‘secure’ but instead limit access to democracy for Georgians statewide,” read a letter penned this week by local leaders in Albany, Columbus and Augusta.

Fleming’s bill passed out of his committee after four separate hearings in which several county elections officials testified about the financial impacts of the proposed changes, expressing support for some provision like tighter ID verification but opposing others such as requiring drop boxes for absentee ballots to be placed only inside polling places.

Fleming, who is heading up this year’s debate on election bills in the Republican-controlled House, has made clear he believes the proposed changes would only create challenges for about 3% of Georgia voters who lack driver’s licenses – while boosting security for millions more voters.

At the first hearing to consider his bill on Feb. 18, Fleming said his bill stemmed not only from Republican voter grievances in the 2020 elections, but also Democratic voter grievances in the 2018 election for Georgia governor when then-Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams lost to current Republican Gov. Brian Kemp amid a flurry of voter-suppression charges.

“The goal of the bill … is an attempt, to the extent that we can, to begin to remedy some of those [elections] problems … and try to bring the left and the right back to a position where they have confidence overall in our election system,” Fleming said.