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Gov. Kemp signs bill to let Georgia parents reject kids' masks in schools

The law allows parents to exclude their children from mask mandates in public schools.

ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp has officially signed off on a bill which would let parents opt their children out of public school mask mandates.

Kemp held a Tuesday afternoon press conference before signing the "Unmask Georgia Students Act" into law.

"This will ensure that parents have the final say when it comes to the health and wellbeing of their child," Kemp said.

Senate Bill 514 passed the state House 93-52 after a debate in which Republicans argued that parents should be able to reject “misguided policies” forcing their children to wear masks, while Democrats argued the move would gut a protective measure that could still be needed if COVID-19 resurges or another respiratory illness becomes widespread.

The ban would last for five years until June 30, 2027, although lawmakers have acknowledged a governor could override it if a public health emergency is declared.

“Parents are the best decision makers when it comes to the health and education of their children,” said Rep. Lauren McDonald III, a Cumming Republican who presented the bill. “This legislation ensures that those rights are not infringed by misguided policies.”

Democrats said the measure responded to the demands of a noisy minority, sacrificing collective safety.

“There is a shared responsibility to do what you can to protect others,” said. Rep Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat who has a doctorate in microbiology. “Opting out of that responsibility puts others in harm’s way. Public health bills like this create this false and dangerous sense of individualism.”

Many Republican-controlled states banned mask mandates last year, part of a broad conservative backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness. Georgia lawmakers did not act last year, but the GOP-controlled General Assembly has been more amenable to the measures in this election year, especially on the grounds that parents should be able to make key decisions for their own child’s learning.

Kemp made the proposal after Republican attacks on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams for not wearing a mask when she spoke at a Decatur elementary school where masks were supposed to be required.

Many of Georgia’s 180 school districts never had a mask mandate, and of those that did, almost all have dropped them since January as cases of COVID-19 have fallen. One that still has a mandate is the 52,000-student Clayton County district in Atlanta’s southern suburbs.

District spokesperson Charles White said Friday that Clayton County schools had employed “an abundance of caution” to protect students, employees and their families.

“While we still feel that Clayton County needs to have a higher vaccination rate, especially in light of a potential surge in cases due to the new variation of the omicron strain, we will adhere to the law enacted by the Georgia General Assembly and when signed by Gov. Brian Kemp,” White said in a statement.

Republicans argued that much communication, especially in younger children learning to speak and read, is aided by being able to see someone’s mouth. The also argued that statistics show the virus poses little risk to school-aged children and questioned the effectiveness of masks, especially cloth masks.

“Nothing in this bill prohibits parents from sending their children to school in a mask that actually works,” said Rep. Mark Newton, an Augusta Republican and emergency room physician.

Democrats, though, warned that without the ability to impose a mask mandate on all students, districts could be forced to again suspend in-person learning

“This bill really should be renamed ‘Close Georgia Schools,’” Clark said.