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ATLANTA -- Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday ruled out ordering public school systems to impose mask mandates for returning students and teachers, echoing his opposition to statewide requirements to wear face coverings to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Kemp, speaking at the opening of a testing site at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, said he was confident that local superintendents can make their own decisions about whether masks are necessary in their districts as he continued to encourage but not require their use.

"We've given the responsibility to the schools, to the local superintendents," Kemp said. "Like most things in education, I'm a firm believer that the local governments know their schools better than the state government does."

His remarks came days after a photo of North Paulding High School students jammed into a hallway in between classes went viral. The school later revealed a half-dozen students and three staffers were diagnosed with COVID-19 and that courses will be held online for at least a few days this week.

The governor was seconded by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who joined Kemp to highlight Georgia's new testing initiative.

"We find that engagement and education goes a lot further than enforcement," said Adams. "I'm not against places having to mandate. But what I want people to understand is that a mandate alone will not fix your problem, particularly when you're dealing with young people."

The governor is firmly opposed to mask requirements and has gone to court to block the city of Atlanta from instituting a requirement for face coverings. However, his executive order also gives school systems and private businesses leeway to impose mask requirements.

That approach has led to conflicting policies. On the south side of Broad Street in Athens, for instance, the campus of University of Georgia requires masks. On the north side, the city's mask mandate ordinance is effectively unenforceable under Kemp's order.

Democrats were sharply critical of his stance. State Rep. Beth Moore, who has been soliciting anonymous tips from students, parent and faculty, said Republicans have been "doubling down and making it worse."

"The adults in the room where decisions are made aren't taking this virus seriously -- and the people who will suffer from this are our teachers, children and their families," said Moore, D-Peachtree Corners.

The fallout over the infamous Paulding County photo came as many Georgia school districts began to reopen their doors. Some are offering families a choice between in-person and online schooling, though the number of systems moving to virtual-only coursework is increasing.

School systems must balance those pressures to reopen with other stark realities. Large swaths of the state, particularly in rural areas, lack high-speed online access. Many students rely on schools for safety-net care such as subsidized meals, counseling, health care and social services.

And a broad cross-section of educational leaders, including superintendent Richard Woods, have pointed out the shortcomings of the lurch to online school during the onset of the pandemic in March. Among them were inadequate technology and squeezed schedules for virtual learning.

Woods, too, has encouraged schools to mandate the use of masks and other face coverings, particularly in areas such as crowded school hallways where social distancing is impossible. Asked whether Kemp took the same position as Woods, the governor said he'll leave that decision up to local officials.

"We're encouraging people -- we did that again today -- to wear your mask," Kemp said. "I'm confident that superintendents have the tools, the resources, and the masks that we've given them, as far as the state's concerned, to be able to handle that at the local level."

 

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