State officials, school district sued over school reopenings

ATLANTA — The Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) has filed a lawsuit against state officials and a school district for their handling of school reopenings amid the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp, State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Kathleen Toomey and multiple Paulding County School District officials are named in the complaint that includes two unnamed plaintiffs, an educator and a parent on behalf of a child in the Paulding school system.

The 39-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in Fulton County Superior Court claims the state and the Paulding County School District “failed to adequately address the threat that the novel coronavirus poses to public school students, staff and their families," and have put plaintiffs at "unreasonable risk of exposure" to the virus.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators that represents more than 28,000 members, told CNHI the association filed the lawsuit out of growing concern for the health and safety of public school students in Georgia.

"We continue to hear of cases — in students, in staff, their families — as we returned to buildings in districts where the virus is still in the community in great numbers,” she said Thursday. "We know that there are schools that have opened and then immediately closed and have switched their instructional models. ... It's been very stressful for students and educators. But first and foremost, it's because of the health and safety of our students and their well-being.”

Morgan said the lawsuit requests “consistent and clear guidelines” that adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Georgia Department of Public Health guidance that is required across schools.

"We know requiring masks, social distancing, washing our hands, those things can help prevent the spread and they are not being required in all systems,” she said. "We also understand that in many of our schools, contact tracing is nonexistent. So, families are not getting the information that they need to make the decisions that are best for their students.”

CNHI recently obtained through an open records request emails to Woods in the weeks leading up to school reopenings. The emails from teachers, parents and staff pleaded with the state Department of Education to intervene with local school district plans and switch to an all-virtual learning platform, delay start dates or require masks in schools.

Woods responded to the lawsuit in a statement Thursday and said the department — along with the Georgia Department of Public Health — issued detailed guidance to school systems, including encouraging masks as part of the dress code but, ultimately, local school officials have the authority to make their own decisions on how to reopen schools.

"At the end of the day, the Georgia Constitution provides for the local control of public schools," he said in the statement. "There is often a misconception that the state school superintendent has unilateral authority over all operations of public schools, and that is simply not true. The GAE complaint is asking the Georgia Department of Education to exercise authority we do not have."

Woods stressed the department has advocated for teachers and schools by pushing against high-stakes testing and other measures.

The lawsuit calls Kemp’s handling of school reopenings “laissez-faire" despite “clear warning signs” about the dangers of COVID-19 in schools, such as a CDC report in July on an outbreak at a North Georgia overnight camp.

"Despite these clear warning signs, defendants still failed to provide any meaningful, binding guidelines for when, and if so to what extent and under what conditions, schools could resume in-person instruction,” the lawsuit says. "And predictably, when some Georgia schools reopened in August of 2020, prematurely and without even the most essential safeguards, outbreaks promptly occurred and forced schools to reclose."

The governor's office declined comment, citing pending litigation, but during a Wednesday press conference, Kemp said teachers and local school officials have done a "great job" in handling the start of the new year.

“We knew that when schools went back there would be issues that schools had to deal with — they’ve done that,” he said.

The Paulding County School District received national attention after a photo showing crowded hallways and few masks went viral in August. In his statement Thursday, Woods said his staff directly addressed concerns with the school district's superintendent.

"When publicly shared photos made it clear that there were issues with Paulding County Schools’ COVID-19 response, my staff reached out to the Paulding superintendent directly, and I issued a public statement making it clear this was not acceptable," he said.

The unnamed Paulding County School District educator has worked in the district for almost two decades and is the only source of income for her household as a single mother, the lawsuit says. She lives with an adult parent, nearly 80 years old, who is diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). One of her children who attends a Paulding County school, the lawsuit says, also has a respiratory illness.

The educator claims she did not receive formal training on how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in her classroom and was told by administrators she could not tell her students to wear masks.

The lawsuit claims the unnamed student suffers from asthma and severe allergies that require medical treatment. The student claims social distancing is not followed within the school and that a "culture of 'no mask wearing' exists inside the school community.”

The lawsuit says state officials have given local districts such as Paulding “free rein” to resume in-person instruction despite concerning community infection rates, and that the defendants have violated the state Constitution's mandate that all students receive an “adequate public education."

"The students in front of us, in our classroom when they walk in the door, the school does have this legal obligation ... that we must do everything in our power to ensure that our students thrive, not only academically, (but) physically, socially and emotionally,” Morgan said. “The current lack of health and safety standards throughout the state is not what we need to be doing for our students."

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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