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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia senators want parents to be able to opt their children out of school mask mandates for five years, under a bill passed Tuesday.
Senators voted 32-19 for an amended version of Senate Bill 514, backed by Gov. Brian Kemp. The original measure would have only allowed parents to exclude their children from face covering rules for a year, but an amendment adopted by the Senate sets a deadline of June 30, 2027.
The measure moves to the House for more debate.
Sen. Clint Dixon, a Buford Republican sponsoring the bill, argued that the educational and psychological harm from masks outweighs any health benefit and said some districts were clinging to mask mandates because of “misguided politics.”
“Extended mask wearing in the classroom has many negative effects on children,” Dixon said. He also said it should, “Parents are the best decision makers when it comes to the health and education of their children.”
Democrats argued that the bill undercuts local control and spreads misinformation about the benefits of masks. They said there’s no guarantee schools won’t need to require masks to maintain in-person learning by 2027.
“Can you tell me when the next global pandemic is going to take place?” asked Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat.
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.
Kemp made the proposal after Republican attacks on likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams for not wearing a mask when she spoke at a Decatur elementary school earlier this month where masks were supposed to be required.
A number of Georgia school districts have announced they are lifting their mask mandates in recent days after the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its mask guidance. That includes districts in Augusta, Savannah and metro Atlanta.
Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat who was hospitalized for months with COVID-19 last year, called her mask “my new best friend,” warning that a relaxing of masking could lead to more cases and more deaths.
“Don’t let the numbers escalate again because those are the body bags going out of our hospitals,” James said.
But Dixon and other proponents said that parents should be able to choose.
“We have gone overboard with the masking of children who are statistically at little to no risk,” said Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Cumming Republican.
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