Feds sign off on final portion of pandemic relief for Georgia schools

ATLANTA – Georgia schools are about to receive the final $1.4 billion installment of $4.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds the state Department of Education was allocated through legislation Congress passed in March.

The U.S. Department of Education approved the state’s plan for the stimulus money on Thursday. Georgia received the first $2.8 billion shortly after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law.

Of the total $4.2 billion package earmarked for Georgia, $3.8 billion will go directly to school districts across the state. The other $425 million will be used to address statewide needs.

“We are focused on supporting learning, expanding resources for student mental health and wellbeing, and ensuring the safety of students, staff, and families,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said.

“We will use these funds to deploy state-level Academic Recovery Specialists, establish school-based health clinics, and more. The resources we’ve been given will directly support schools and students.”

More than 1.7 million Georgia students were forced to switch to online classes in March of last year as cases of COVID-19 began to mount. The 2020-21 school year that began last August was conducted with a mishmash of virtual and in-person instruction.

The state- and regional-level Academic Recovery Specialists will help teachers and administrators recover from the gaps in learning resulting from the disruption the pandemic brought to the schools.

The federal money also will pay for state-level support for school nurses, school psychologists, school social workers, wraparound services and military families. It will help establish school-based health clinics for rural students, provide mental-health awareness training for educators and provide support and therapeutic services for students with disabilities.

Georgia will return fully to in-person classes with the start of the 2021-22 school year, with most districts beginning classes next month.

Ralston opts not to seek U.S. Senate seat

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston

ATLANTA – Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has decided not to run for the U.S. Senate next year.

Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had been considering seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock but has chosen instead to run for reelection to his Northwest Georgia House seat and, if successful, bid for another two-year term as speaker.

“Speaker Ralston is focused on continuing to move the House’s agenda forward, particularly on critical policy issues like public safety, mental health and economic development,” Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen wrote Thursday in an email to Capitol Beat News Service.

While U.S. senator is a prestigious statewide post, being among 100 senators lacks the political clout Ralston now enjoys as leader of the state House of Representatives. Political observers considered it unlikely that he would give that up to vie for the Senate.

Ralston’s decision not to enter the Senate fray leaves the race for the Republican nod wide open, at least for now.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is the best known candidate in the field at this point. Other announced GOP candidates include Atlanta banking executive and former Navy SEAL officer Latham  Saddler and Kelvin King, a small business owner and Air Force veteran also from Atlanta.

Former President Donald Trump has openly touted University of Georgia football icon Herschel Walker, who spoke at the Republican National Convention last summer. But Walker has not yet announced whether he will run.

As an incumbent, Warnock not surprisingly has jumped out to an early fundraising lead. He raised nearly $7 million during the second quarter, giving him a total campaign treasury of $10.5 million as of June 30, including the results of earlier fund-raising.

Warnock won the Senate seat in a January runoff over incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Initial unemployment claims in Georgia hit pandemic low

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims fell in Georgia last week, running counter to an increase at the national level.

Jobless Georgians filed 12,605 initial claims last week, down 1,870 from the previous week and the lowest weekly total since the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia in March of last year.

The state Department of Labor has paid out almost $22.9 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits since March 21, 2020, more than during the last decade combined prior to the pandemic.

The agency has processed nearly 5 billion first-time unemployment claims during those months.

Resources for unemployed Georgians seeking reemployment along with information on filing jobless claims can be found on the labor department’s website at https://dol.georgia.gov. Job listings and job search assistance is available at https://employgeorgia.com.

Panel: Overcoming vaccine hesitancy key to getting past COVID-19

Coronavirus (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

ATLANTA – Georgia and other states with low COVID-19 vaccination rates are in a race against time with fast-replicating variants of the virus, a faculty member at the Morehouse School of Medicine said Thursday.

The various coronavirus vaccines now available are effective against the Delta variant, now responsible for the most new infections. But other variants could spring up soon unless more residents of low-vaccination states get vaccinated, Dr. Michelle Nichols, associate dean of family medicine at Morehouse, warned during a panel discussion sponsored by the school and the Peach State Health Plan.

“These variants are smart. They’re dangerous,” she said. “There’s a point at which variants will overtake us.”

Faculty members from Morehouse, state agency heads, representatives of Peach State Health Plan and educational, religious and nonprofit leaders spent an hour talking about what can be done to overcome vaccine hesitancy in Georgia.

As of Thursday, COVID-19 had hospitalized 914,984 Georgians, while the virus had resulted in 21,593 confirmed or probable deaths. The state’s vaccination rate of 38% trails the national average.

Nichols said a key factor in why so many Georgians are reluctant to get vaccinated is the amount of misinformation being spread about the shots. She said COVID-19 vaccinations will not affect a woman’s fertility, will not alter a person’s DNA and will not cause a person to contract the virus.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said another argument against getting the shot is that it won’t protect the recipient from contracting the virus.

“You can still acquire an infection,” she said. “But you’re less likely to become seriously ill or die. … Nothing is more dangerous than a serious case of COVID.”

Wade Rakes, president and CEO of Peach State Health Plan, said events such as Thursday’s panel discussion are important to getting out the word about the safety and efficacy of the various vaccines.

“When people are informed, they choose to join the group of people who are vaccinated,” he said. “That’s going to be the way for us to get up to the goal of [a] 70% [vaccination rate].”

But the most important way to raise public awareness about the need to get vaccinated is through people in the community those who remain unvaccinated know and trust, said Marvin Laster, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany.

“It takes the influencers, your doctor, your minister, your barber,” he said.

“You’ve got to meet the people where they are,” added Gail Fowler, CEO and Superintendent of Cirrus Academy, a charter school in Macon.

With Georgians ages 60 and over most likely to have received COVID shots, Fowler said an important group to concentrate the message on now is students 12 and over, the latest to become eligible for vaccinations.

Dr. Lilly Immergluck, a pediatrician and professor of immunology at Morehouse, said the group of Americans eligible for the vaccine least likely to be vaccinated is between the ages of 18 and 29. Yet, with the Delta variant now prevalent, the virus is spreading to that group more frequently than during the earlier stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have to deliver a message to these young people they can relate to,” said Harry Douglas, a former wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons who cofounded a nonprofit serving underprivileged young people and their families. “Delivery is very important to this process.”

Duncan proposes tax credit to raise money for law enforcement

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

ATLANTA – Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan called on the General Assembly Thursday to create a $250 million state tax credit aimed at reducing crime statewide.

The Law Enforcement Strategic Support (LESS Crime) Act will be the cornerstone of Duncan’s 2022 legislative agenda.

Duncan was the third Republican state leader to announce an anti-crime initiative this week.

On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp told members of a state House committee he will include anti-crime measures on the agenda of the special legislative session he will call this fall primarily for the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines to account for population shifts in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Then on Wednesday, House Speaker David Ralston proposed spending an additional $75 million to bolster law enforcement and mental health services in Georgia.

“It should be no surprise that every state leader is concerned with the exponential rise in crime in Georgia, especially in our capital city,” Duncan said Thursday. “Rising crime is affecting individuals, businesses and Georgia families.

“Combating this problem will not be accomplished by one solution alone. … Big problems call for big solutions.”

The tax credit Duncan envisions would be modeled after the Rural Hospital Tax Credit Georgia lawmakers created in 2016 to help the state’s most financially stressed rural hospitals.

The new tax credit legislation would let Georgians write a check directly to their local law enforcement agency and receive a 100% dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit. The credit would be capped at $5,000 per individual taxpayer, $10,000 per married couple, or in the case of a business, at 75% of a company’s tax liability.

Law enforcement agencies would be required to allocate the money for police officer pay raises, to hire more officers or to increase training.