Coronavirus, Education

In Lawsuit, Ga. Teachers’ Group Accuses State, Paulding School Officials Of ‘Reckless’ Reopening

In addition to Gov. Brian Kemp and other state officials, the lawsuit filed by the Georgia Association of Educators also names Paulding County Superintendent Brian Otott and each member of the school board as defendants.
In addition to Gov. Brian Kemp and other state officials, the lawsuit filed by the Georgia Association of Educators also names Paulding County Superintendent Brian Otott and each member of the school board as defendants.
Credit Brynn Anderson / Associated Press file

A statewide teachers’ group has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Brian Kemp, State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey and other state and local officials for “reckless guidance and actions in opening school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Georgia Association of Educators says it filed the complaint in Fulton County Superior Court this week.

“Decisions by some of our leaders have led to classroom and school environments that endanger our children,” GAE president Lisa Morgan said in a statement. “As an organization of educators, that goes against the very nature of who we are and what we do for our students every day. That is why today GAE, along with other plaintiffs, saw the need to file suit.”

Kemp didn’t tell Georgia school districts how they should reopen. He left those decisions up to them.

“I think kids need to be back in the classroom,” Kemp said when asked last week about some districts’ decisions to start the year virtually. “I’ve been a local control governor. I’m being consistent on that.”

In metro Atlanta, districts including Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties and Atlanta Public Schools all began the year remotely. Most of those districts have developed plans to phase in face-to-face learning.

However, districts like Cherokee and Paulding counties offered in-person options while cases of COVID-19 were higher in the surrounding communities than public health experts recommend for school reopenings.

Some schools in both districts temporarily shifted to remote learning after cases increased. Both school systems have reported a drop in cases since then.

The GAE says by issuing executive orders that didn’t include safety requirements for schools, Kemp violated the state constitution’s mandate that all students receive an “adequate education.”

For example, he didn’t require schools that reopened in-person to mandate face coverings. (Again, Kemp said that’s a local decision. Woods has said school boards can mandate face coverings as part of a district’s dress code.)

The suit also names Paulding County Superintendent Brian Otott and each member of the school board as defendants.

Pictures of unmasked students in a crowded hallway at North Paulding High School went viral in August. Soon afterward, the school stopped in-person classes and shifted to virtual learning for several weeks.

The suit asks the defendants to declare the constitutional right to an adequate public school education includes a student’s right to school facilities that meet basic health and safety standards; declare the Paulding County school board has created a public nuisance through its acts and omissions; and declare that public school districts have a duty to provide a safe work environment for their employees.

The GAE says it’s also asking the court to order that all defendants issue binding health and safety standards consistent with public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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