(The Center Square) – The Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) is suing Gov. Brian Kemp and other state and local officials for the way they handled reopening the state's public schools.
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday but announced Thursday, GAE said the governor's school reopening guidance put the state's 1.8 million public school students at risk and officials did not provide sufficient safeguards to protect students.
"Decisions by some of our leaders have led to classroom and school environments that endanger our children," said Lisa Morgan, a kindergarten teacher and GAE president.
The association is suing on behalf of more than 28,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and school counselors and an unnamed Paulding County School District employee and student.
In addition to Kemp, GAE also named state School Superintendent Richard Woods, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Paulding County schools Superintendent Brian Otott and Paulding County school board members as defendants.
GAE alleges the officials' handling of school reopenings violated the Georgia Constitution, which states all students should have the right to an "adequate public education."
The lawsuit says Kemp failed to enforce safeguards such as face coverings and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some districts resumed in-person learning without considering community contraction rates, GAE said, causing outbreaks and school closures that interrupted education.
"Educators fully understand the preferred option of in-person instruction," Morgan said. "We want to be in our classrooms, interacting with our students and providing them the instructional experiences we know provide them the best learning opportunities. However, our overriding concern is the welfare and safety of our students."
According to court documents, students in the Paulding County district were offered either in-person or virtual learning. So many students selected virtual instruction, however, they had to create a waiting list. About 20,000 students attended in-person classes at the beginning of the fall semester, court documents said. Among them was one of the plaintiffs, identified in court documents as R.J., a student who has asthma and severe allergies.
R.J. said the school she attends has a culture of not wearing masks and social distancing is not enforced. R.J.'s mother, a Paulding teacher, said a small percentage of students and staff wear masks, and she was told by superiors not to push the safety measure. The teacher also said the district did not provide formal COVID-19 safety training, handbooks or handouts of any sort.
During the first week of school, a photo of a crowded hallway at North Paulding High School with very few students wearing masks flooded social media.
Woods said the Georgia Department of Education and state health officials encouraged school districts to mandate masks through dress codes before schools reopened. However, districts have local control over schools, according to the state's constitution.
"The GAE complaint is asking the Georgia Department of Education to exercise authority we do not have," Woods said.
The Paulding County School District said it was aware of the complaint but does not comment on pending litigation.
GAE is asking the court to declare that "the constitutional right to an adequate public school education" includes students' right to schools that meet basic health and safety standards. It also wants the court to order districts to provide a safe environment for employees, condemn the local board of education for its actions and require the governor and the other officials to mandate CDC requirements.
Woods said he hopes the lawsuit can be resolved in a way that would benefit teachers and students.
"Respectfully, if GAE had reached out to me to sit down and seek solutions to common challenges, I would have done so – just as I have always done so – but they did not," Woods said.