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Georgia teacher lawsuit blames Kemp, school officials for putting staff, students at risk for COVID-19

By Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga (CNT)

A lawsuit by a teacher in Paulding County is challenging the way officials from Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods down to the local school board have handled the coronavirus.

The lawsuit alleges that lax state and local standards have exposed staff, students, families and the Paulding community to risk of infection by the sometimes deadly virus.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the State Defendants have steadfastly refused to issue meaningful, binding requirements for school districts concerning how they are expected to operate during the pandemic,” says the complaint filed in Fulton County Superior Court. This is in “sharp contrast” to standards for restaurants, retailers or summer camps, the lawsuit notes.

The 39-page lawsuit wants the court to require schools to implement precautions and follow standards “reasonably calculated” to ensure safety.

A copy was shared by the Georgia Association of Educators, one of the plaintiffs.

The Georgia educators group, the state’s second-largest teacher advocacy organization with 28,000 members, is a party to the suit with the anonymous Paulding employee and education group member, described as a longtime teacher. She is referred to only by her initials M.J. because she fears retaliation by the school district, the suit says. She lives with a parent, nearly 80, who has a lung disease that enhances the risk of consequences of COVID-19.

She also has a child attending the school system who has asthma and severe allergies. Though Paulding offers an online option, this family chose not to enroll in it because the child is a “strong” student and “because of the complexity of the subject matter and the rigorous workload of her curriculum.”

“This is all about the health and safety of our students,” said the group’s President, Lisa Morgan, a teacher in DeKalb County. “The reopening plans across the state are not prioritizing health and safety.”

The lawsuit was not appearing in the records system of Fulton County Superior Court by midday Thursday, but Morgan said attorneys had documented that they had filed it electronically Wednesday afternoon and told her their case was awaiting assignment to a judge. She said that as far as she knew it was one of the first lawsuits of its kind in the nation, likely because Georgia was among the earliest states to return to school for the fall semester.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the suit. “We don’t comment on pending litigation,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said.

Kemp on Wednesday pointed to declining case counts, saying Georgians had “stepped up to the plate” in responding to the coronavirus. Since mid-July, Georgia has reported declining cases in 10 out of the past 11 weeks, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

Still, Georgia’s seven-day rolling average of new cases is about double what it was at the low point at the end of May, a month after Kemp relaxed shelter-in-place orders, and the death rate reported during the seven days that ended last Friday was above the national average, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

A spokesman for the Paulding school system was still reviewing the complaint Thursday and was not prepared to comment. Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment.

Paulding made international news in August after students posted photographs on social media showing hallways crowded with students, few of them wearing masks. Public health officials have consistently said that masks are a key tool in combatting the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit says Paulding doesn’t require masks and, according to the plaintiffs, few wear them at school. It notes that as of this week more than 7,200 people had died in Georgia from COVID-19.

The state superintendent’s office said Woods has encouraged schools to mandate masks and noted that they are not obliged to offer in-person classes. Schools operate independently under the state constitution, and the state superintendent, an elected official, has no unilateral authority over their operations, the statement said. “The GAE complaint is asking the Georgia Department of Education to exercise authority we do not have,” said the statement from Woods’ spokeswoman Meghan Frick.

It noted that when the Paulding photos made it clear there were “issues” with that school system’s response to COVID-19, Woods’ staff contacted Paulding about it, and Woods himself issued a public statement “making it clear this was not acceptable.”