Gov. Brian Kemp hands out souvenir signing pens after signing the school mandate ban into law. Under the law, schools cannot mandate masks for Georgia’s more than 1.6 million students.

Gov. Brian Kemp hands out souvenir signing pens after signing the school mandate ban into law. Under the law, schools cannot mandate masks for Georgia’s more than 1.6 million students.

Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Georgia took two big steps toward ending pandemic restrictions Tuesday as Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill allowing a parental veto for school mask mandates and the state House passed a bill banning so-called vaccine passports for public facilities, including colleges and universities.

Republicans called the measures signs of a return to normal, but Democrats questioned whether they represent a premature declaration of victory over COVID-19.

Kemp was flanked by schoolchildren as he signed Senate Bill 514, also known as the Unmask Georgia Students Act during a special ceremony in the Capitol.

The measure forbids schools or districts from requiring face masks unless their policy includes the ability for parents to opt out. Only the governor has the power to require a mask mandate through an executive order.

The law went into effect immediately upon Kemp’s signature and is set to expire on June 30, 2027.

“Today, as we continue to safely move out of the pandemic, we are taking another important step to make sure our students are not the victims of those who continue to play pandemic politics,” Kemp said. “The Unmask Georgia Students Act guarantees the rights of parents to make health care decisions in the best interests of their children.”

Democrats said it is Kemp who is playing pandemic politics.

“This bill is not about a particular virus. Indeed, it’s not even specific to a single virus. This one’s about power,” said Snellville Democratic state Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, who holds a PhD in epidemiology. “It’s about the folks who are angry that they don’t control the Gwinnett school board anymore wanting absolutely no power for this school board or superintendent to make decisions to prioritize community health and schools staying open over their individual anger.”

Gwinnett County Board of Education meetings were a hotbed of discontent over pandemic rules. In response to complaints from there and across the state, GOP lawmakers have pushed a slate of bills this session they say are aimed at codifying and expanding the rights of public school parents.

Democrats also questioned the science behind the bill. Lilburn Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Clark, who lectures in microbiology at Emory University, compared it to letting restaurant workers opt out of washing their hands.

“When you share a space with others, you also share the air within that space,” she said. “That means that there is a shared responsibility to do what you can to protect others. Opting out of that responsibility puts others in harm’s way. Public health. Bills like this create this false and dangerous sense of individualism for something that is collective.”

Republicans countered that parents should have the right to make those decisions and said that cloth masks are ineffective for children, who typically only develop minor symptoms when they contract COVID-19.

“We’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half, almost two years now,” said Augusta Republican Rep. Mark Newton, a physician. “We’ve learned that, thankfully, this is an incredibly mild illness in children. In kids without significant comorbid conditions, there’s been really less than two dozen deaths in a two-year period. We’ve learned that teachers can be protected much better by choosing to get vaccinated themselves than any number of masks worn by children or themselves. And frankly, nothing in this bill that I’ve read in it prohibits any parent from sending their kid to school in a mask that actually works.”

Lawmakers may be counting their chicks before they hatch with this law, said Georgia State University public health professor Dr. Harry J. Heiman.

“Can anyone meaningfully predict that we won’t have another serious COVID surge? The answer is absolutely not,” he said. “It could be this BA.2 variant. They’re certainly seeing that in parts of Europe and Asia, and there’s a slight uptake in a few U.S. states in the Northeast. So we don’t know. But what’s most concerning about this is that this isn’t a bill that restricts local school systems ability to mandate masks in their schools for the next six months or the next year, this goes through June 2027.”

Heiman and Democrats argue that districts should have the flexibility to adjust based on their conditions. COVID-19 cases statewide are low by coronavirus pandemic standards, 61 per 100,000 people, but some places are dealing with higher case loads.

“Everyone would agree that’s a low number, and it’s perfectly reasonable for most school systems to not require masks,” he said. “But if you look at the state website, in Chattahoochee County, the number of cases per 100,000, is 1,861. That’s 30 times higher than the state average. If I were an educational leader in that county, I would absolutely, without question, want to mandate masks in my schools. So the idea that our state leadership that likes to talk about the importance of local control, would take away that local control during a continuing global pandemic is just incredibly short-sighted and irresponsible, and I think the same thing regarding any legislation that’s trying to proactively restrict the ability to use a vaccine mandate as a tool.”

Kemp is also expected to sign a bill that bans state and local governments from requiring proof of vaccination to attend public colleges and universities or access other public amenities.

In a 99-76 vote on Tuesday,  House Republicans passed Senate Bill 345 that blocks the so-called vaccine passports showing COVID-19 immunity status in order to participate in government services such as renewing a driver’s license or attending a legislative meeting in the state Capitol.

Suwanee Republican Rep. Bonnie Rich, who carried the Senate bill in the House, said that she is vaccinated but that this bill aims to keep that a voluntary decision by protecting people’s rights in making decisions they feel are in their best interests.

“People who claim a variety of political ideologies consider mandates to be an unacceptable infringement of personal freedom and choice despite having a personal belief in the safety and necessity of the vaccine,” Rich said.

The amended bill, which now heads back for a final vote in the Senate, includes exceptions for health care workers and contracted university employees who are required under federal law to receive the vaccine. Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, chairman of the Republican Senate Rules Committee, sponsored the legislation, which would be in effect until June 30, 2023.

Democratic legislators say the bill contradicts the reasons behind other vaccination mandates for measles and other viruses required for children to attend school. They argue the passport issue is not just about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine but also shines a light on the polarization and disinformation characterized throughout the two years of the pandemic.

“It seems important not to pass up the opportunity to learn from what the COVID crisis reveals about governance, given the uphill battle that any policy faces when it targets community needs, rather than policy or individual beneficiaries,” said Rep. Karla Drenner, an Avondale Estates Democrat. “There seems little chance that this pandemic has created a sea change in our public health system.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.