Georgia students are beginning their second year of school during the pandemic as coronavirus cases skyrocket, driven by the highly contagious delta variant. With children under 12 not yet eligible for the vaccine, some school districts are already seeing battles over how best to keep kids safe for in-person learning. Gov. Brian Kemp says he has no plans to impose statewide mask or vaccination mandates. Steve Fennessy gets into all this and more with Atlanta-based Wall Street Journal reporter Cam McWhirter.

RELATED: Schools Reopen to Mask Confusion 


Steve Fennessy:  As K-12 students in Georgia begin their second year of school during the pandemic, the coronavirus is once again surging around the state. Already in the first few days of the new school year, metro Atlanta education officials are reporting more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases. And while that's still a tiny fraction of the student population, we're still just in the second week of the school year for many districts. And beyond the classroom, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all up, driven by the highly contagious delta variant and Georgia's lagging vaccination rates. Gov. Brian Kemp continues to defend his policy that leaves it up to each individual school district to design their own covid-safety measures. The governor says he has no plans to impose vaccination or mask mandates.

Brian Kemp: We don't need mandates to know what to do. We need to talk to people about getting vaccinated to protect themselves from the delta variant and these other variants that are out there.

Steve Fennessy: Kemp says the uptick in the number of Georgians seeking vaccination is a sign of progress, but with kids under 12 still not eligible for shots, the state's hands-off policy on COVID in schools has some parents, teachers and administrators worried about safety. For more, I'm joined by Cam McWhirter. He's a reporter with the Wall Street Journal based in Atlanta. The COVID numbers around Georgia are not looking good. Back in May 1st, which seems like ancient history at this point, the State Emergency Management Agency reported 1,500 hospitalizations statewide. Now there's more than double that number. And there's an increase of nearly 300 more hospitalizations since last Friday alone. And some schools are suspending classes and quarantining already after seeing positive cases. You and a colleague just reported on schools reopening in Georgia. What did you learn?

Cam McWhirter: There's a wide disparity in terms of how these school districts are approaching this problem, but everybody is very anxious about it. By late spring, early summer, it looked like we were heading out of this not only in Georgia but in the country. And now we've seen this delta variant uptick overwhelmingly among people who were not vaccinated and this is causing great consternation as schools are set to reopen.

Steve Fennessy: And some schools are mandating masks and some school districts are not.

Cam McWhirter: Right. And some weren't, and then two days before, suddenly were. And that's caused great anger among some parents who — who feel that the masks really inhibit their children from learning and that they aren't necessarily necessary.

[News tape] WSB-TV: Parents go one-on-one with local doctors in Cobb County about COVID in schools, and they're asking what these physicians are really seeing inside local emergency rooms. These doctors are also parents, many of them with kids in Cobb County schools.

Steve Fennessy: In covering the reopening of school districts in Georgia, where did you focus some of your reporting?

Cam McWhirter: I had a colleague who went up to Cobb and Gwinnett; my reporting focused on Douglas and Clayton — which is,  Douglas to the west of the city and Clayton to the south. In Clayton, they had a mask mandate in place, including on the buses, and I spoke with the superintendent and lots of staff there as well as parents. Everyone seemed to be fairly accepting of the of the mask mandate because schools were reopening and they were just glad that they were. There is very, very low vaccination rate: Clayton, 33% of — of those eligible were — were fully vaccinated in that county. So that's, you know, the national averages over 50 at this point. There has been some fights over parents not giving their kids masks when they get on the buses in the morning, which is also a requirement that the school system set. So in Douglas County, there's been a lot of fighting. A lot of parents are very upset because it was a it was a mandate that was imposed just a few days before the school year resumed. So a lot of parents were caught off guard. They all acknowledged that their kids had a rough academic year. Education took a hit. But a lot of people, emotionally, the idea of going back to masks is really upsetting to them. The idea of people not willing to put masks back on is very upsetting to a lot of other people. So it is really going to be roiling for quite a while.

Steve Fennessy: And we've talked a lot about students as we should but, I mean, let's not forget the teachers, of course, who are having to report to work every day. And they have to be making their own calculus about what's best for their own health.

Cam McWhirter: I was in, at a school in Clayton County for the first day. People had to take their temperature, they had to wear masks, they had to use hand sanitizer when they came in the building, but it wasn't certain that people had been vaccinated in or around them, either, whether kids or adults. So when you're with little kids, you know, they're running around and —

Steve Fennessy: They're germ factories.

Cam McWhirter: Yeah. Yeah, right. My kids were, anyway. 

Steve Fennessy: In terms of the school districts’ respective responses, whether it be Douglas, whether it be Clayton, whether it be Cobb, wherever — to what degree is the superintendent imbued with the authority to make these decisions versus school board?

Cam McWhirter: It varies and superintendents are not going to go out on a limb without at least the backing of the majority of their school board. They would be crazy to do that. This is putting intense pressure on all of them and none of them love it, believe me. This is not what they signed up for. But a lot of them say, “Well, we're just following the science. We're following the CDC. We're following the science.” That works with a lot of parents. With other parents, that doesn't work because they've seen mixed messaging. Parents who are vaccinated or who have survived COVID, they are saying, “Get my kid back in school.” The school system's argument is pretty simple: “We're seeing a spike in cases and we have to respond.”

Steve Fennessy: What is the gist of the objection to the masks by parents, not just in Douglas County but in other school districts, who are opposed to that?

Cam McWhirter: There was this woman I spoke with in Douglas County, and her entire family was not being vaccinated, but she was really worried about her daughter's mental health. That was her big thing, “We wore masks when we were told to; we tried to socially distance. Now that the virus is mostly gone, they're suddenly telling my daughter she has to wear a mask to school. And I really worry about her mental health.” As a parallel to that, I also spoke to another woman in Douglas County whose entire family, they were reluctant to get the vaccine initially and then everyone in their family around Thanksgiving got COVID, including her 77-year-old diabetic mother. They all survived, but it was a struggle, and so she is fiercely a strong proponent that everyone needs to be vaccinated and every procedure needs to be taken so that no one else has to experience what she experienced. So we have a real division in every county and in our country about the consequences of not being vaccinated and the consequences of wearing masks.

[News tape] WSB-TV: Cobb County parent John Hanson has three children who attend district schools. We spoke about why he opposes a mask mandate. "Oh, it's terrible. I mean, every day it was ‘Hey, teacher so and so was getting on everyone about wearing a mask today and making sure it is over the nose,’ just distracting from the actual learning environment."

Steve Fennessy: And I would think especially stressful when you talk about adolescent children.

Cam McWhirter: Yeah, exactly. Obviously, there's the medical consequences, but the psychological consequences are something a lot of parents are thinking about, whether they're pro-mask or anti-mask. Everyone's very anxious about what is happening to our children and how are they going to process all this and what are the long-term results going to be? The alternative is some school systems, including Douglas, are setting up where you can go back to online learning. But as most parents in America can attest, online learning —

Steve Fennessy: It's a poor substitute.

Cam McWhirter: Yeah, it's a very poor substitute.

Steve Fennessy: One of the things that seems to be resonating with me as a parent of kids who are under 12 and not eligible for vaccination, you know, I'm seeing more and more there's this sense of outrage among a lot of parents whose kids are in districts where there is no mask mandate, that they feel helpless and they're just so angry because they thought if they just got their kids through last year that they would be returning them to some semblance of normalcy. And with delta, that's just out the window now.

[News tape] WSB-TV: Right now, it's mask optional in Cobb County. But many of the parents who joined this meeting are now pushing for the district to issue a mandate as the delta variant continues to surge. This, after last Friday when the district reported 185 active cases among students and staff. The district's website also showed a total of 253 cases since July 1.

Cam McWhirter: I met the mirror of that view from parents who don't want masks and they are concerned about their — the well-being of their children, too. I think that is a universal now, whether they're right or whether they're wrong, that's the debate that's taking place right now. And this is all while parents are starting to try to go to work again, getting their kids into school so that they can go back to work. You know, there's all kinds of stresses that are arising with this delta variant.

Steve Fennessy: Next, Gov. Brian Kemp's political balancing act during the pandemic and what it may cost him as he runs for reelection next year. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.


This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by Atlanta-based Wall Street Journal reporter Cam McWhirter. We're talking about the highly transmissible delta variant and whether we could be on track for another year of online school in Georgia. We're also talking about Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican governors' opposition to mask mandates. And in Florida and in Texas, some school districts are rebelling against that and implementing mandates anyway and saying “Take us to court.”

[News tape] CBS News: Several large school districts are defying the Republican governors of Florida and Texas by imposing mask mandates. This showdown comes as pediatric COVID cases are surging now, accounting for 15% of all new infections.

Steve Fennessy: Is Gov. Kemp under any pressure from Republicans or certain Republicans in his party to pursue a ban on a mask mandate?

Cam McWhirter: Gov. Kemp is constantly dealing with a an element of the Republican Party that is pushing for him to do more. And there has been pressure for him to impose a similar mandate to what occurred in Florida. He thus far has — has expressed no interest in doing that. I think his strategy is just let the school boards deal with it.

Brian Kemp: Last year at this time, I trusted the local school systems working with the superintendents to do what's best for their kids in conjunction with their parents and their local community. These mandates haven't worked, and it makes it worse when governments are not consistent. I've been consistent for 15 months.

Cam McWhirter: His whole political career since he took office has been a balancing act on a highwire. This has huge consequences. So if the Republican base becomes particularly angered by masked mandates and he refuses to support legislation or take action to counter those, he will pay the political price for that. Alternately, if he comes down with that sort of executive order or legislation or something that would anger the Democratic base and motivate them to chuck him out of office when he's seeking reelection next year.

Steve Fennessy: Of course, there's masking and then there's also the other side of that coin, which is vaccination. Georgia's vaccination numbers, I think we're at 40% roughly, which is significantly below the national average. To what degree is Gov. Kemp pushing vaccinations?

Cam McWhirter: His messaging has been really loud about get vaccinated. But he also will add an addendum that, you know, it's a personal choice and people have the right to do it or not to do it.

Brian Kemp: We need to trust people to do the right thing at the local level. And that's what we're doing. I've been a local control governor when it comes to our school systems. Most of our systems are not doing mask mandates. They're making that choice, the choice of the parents. And that's what I support.

Steve Fennessy: I read that in the early days when we were talking about achieving so-called herd immunity, which would basically suppress further spread of the virus, we were thinking about around 70%. But now with the more transmissible delta variant, they're talking about vaccinations that need to be in the 80, maybe even 90%. What are you hearing and seeing in hospitals, not just in metro Atlanta, but around the state?

Cam McWhirter: I met with a good friend of mine who's a respiratory therapist in a semirural hospital. So it was just nonstop horror stories, people who declined to get vaccinated and then signed themselves out and were ashen faced as they left, gasping for air, people who said they didn't want to get vaccinated because they were worried about consequences 10 years from now. And they're saying that through an oxygen mask.

[News tape] FOX5: Hospitals along the south Georgia coast are filling up. These are the latest numbers, according to the state: 99% of emergency department beds are full, 89% of ICU beds and 92% of all inpatient beds are occupied in hospital Region J. And the head of one health system there says the patients just keep coming.

Cam McWhirter: And what this all means for schools is this is hitting right as our schools in Georgia resume.

Steve Fennessy: So where does that leave us, Cam? I mean, it's — it's tempting to feel despair when you hear something like that.

Cam McWhirter: The state is very divided. Now, how we're going to get out of that to be more united or at least listening to each other on various issues. I don't know the answer to that. In places like the United Kingdom, where they had the delta variant come through, they have a really strong — and the government has really pressed for vaccination rates and vaccination rates are really climbing and the variant is diminishing and hospitalization rates are dropping and they've overcome this this current surge. In a state like Georgia where vaccination rates are still very low, I don't know how this disease is going to play out. If you're not vaccinated, every day you go to the store and every time you send your kids to school, you're throwing the dice.

Clinical Director of the Covid Task Force at the Piedmont Healthcare Corporation Dr. Jayne Morgan:You are playing a game of Russian roulette, and if you are infected your risk of hospitalization and death is much higher than it was with any of the previous variants. And our Department of Public Health data that we are reviewing daily now shows the highest death rate in the demographic of 18-year-olds to 29-year-olds. Think about that when you think about this virus.

Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk about how that battle is going to be played out politically, Gov. Kemp is up for reelection next year. He's obviously going to face opposition from the Democratic Party, possibly Stacey Abrams. But he's also there's an insurgency within his own party that he wasn't sufficiently Trump-adjacent. And so what does that mean for Gov. Kemp as he tries to win another term?

Cam McWhirter: He does not want to anger that core base of Trump voters in the state of Georgia. At the same time, he does not want to anger the liberal parts of this state that already don't like him. It's a tightrope. People who discount him, I think, are being premature. He has pulled off a lot of victories in the past when people thought he was done. And he's come back no matter who he faces.

Steve Fennessy: The gubernatorial election is not the only campaign next year. It's the midterm elections. So we're going to have a new Congress. What — what impact do you think this resurgence in COVID is going to have on the political landscape as we gear up for yet another election in just over a year?

Cam McWhirter: I think people want to say that the divisions regarding mask mandates or regarding vaccinations are all political, but that just isn't true. There is a large percentage of the African American population which votes overwhelmingly Democratic that is not getting vaccinated. And if you look at the vaccination rates among some of the more conservative counties in metro Atlanta, their vaccination rates are higher than in some of the overwhelmingly African American, overwhelmingly Democratic parts of the state of the metro area. So I don't know how it's going to play out.

Steve Fennessy: It seems significant that the American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents so many teachers throughout the country, has come out in favor of mandates.

[News tape] CNBC: We want to welcome Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Can you tell us about your latest thinking?

[News tape] Randi Weingarten: We need to be in school for our kids, with our kids, but we need to keep everyone safe. And that means vaccines are the single most important way to do it. And the second way to do it is masks.

Steve Fennessy: Do you imagine that there may be some districts that use that as leverage to implement their own vaccination mandates?

Cam McWhirter: The American Federation of Teachers is considered a strongly Democratic organization in many ways and is perceived as liberal. So those areas will embrace that. Other areas that do not support that political orientation will reject it for the same reason. And you saw throughout COVID. I covered Trump rallies in South Georgia. I mean, I had a mask on. My business required it. It was not universal, believe me. So in the rural parts of the state, you will have strong pressure to not have masks in the heavily urban areas of the state you will have pressure to have masks. And then in these suburban zones that we've been talking about, you will have a war and that's what's going on.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Cam McWhirter. As of late this week, outbreaks had forced four Clayton County schools to revert to remote learning. Similar measures are being taken in other districts, including Cobb County, where one elementary school's fifth grade class has gone entirely virtual. Also in Cobb County, some parents called for a rally in support of a mask mandate. For more Georgia Today, go to I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. See you next week.