Jury starts deliberations in trial of three men charged in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

The fates of three men charged with the death of Ahmaud Arbery are in the hands of a Glynn County jury after the prosecution made its closing arguments Tuesday.

According to pool reports, deliberation will continue Friday and Saturday if necessary. Members of the jury will decide how long they will deliberate on any given day, including whether they recess early on Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie" Bryan confronted 25-year-old Arbery as he jogged through the streets of a Brunswick-area neighborhood in February 2020. The three men, who are white, chased Arbery, who was Black, in two pickup trucks for several minutes before shooting him. All three face multiple felony charges including murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment and could receive life sentences if found guilty.

Arbery's death gained national attention after Bryan released a video of the killing, which he believed would be exculpatory. Others drew a vastly different conclusion from the footage, and Arbery became one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, with supporters arguing the three defendants targeted him because of his race. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse throughout the trial bearing signs and chanting slogans like “No justice, no peace."

Well-known Black pastors including Rev. Al Sharpton were present at the trial, spurring one of the defense lawyers to complain that the clergy could intimidate jurors. Judge Timothy Walmsley said Tuesday he was confident the jurors could not hear the protesters from inside the courthouse.

The defense team previously argued that Travis McMichael was afraid for his life before he pulled the trigger on his shotgun, and that the trio were reacting to reports of Arbery earlier walking through the construction site of a house in the neighborhood. They said they were attempting a citizen's arrest, which they say was allowed under state law at the time.

Gregory McMichael previously worked in law enforcement, including as an investigator for the district attorney's office in Brunswick. Former district attorney Jackie Johnson initially cited the state's citizen's arrest law as justification for not arresting the McMichaels. She was later indicted for her handling of the case, which is now being prosecuted by the Cobb County District Attorney's Office.

Lawmakers overhauled Georgia's citizen's arrest law, which had ties to the practice of rounding up runaway slaves during the antebellum period, earlier this year following the negative publicity surrounding Arbery's case. The state Legislature also passed a hate crimes bill following Arbery's death, and whichever way the Glynn County jury's verdict falls, the men will face additional federal hate crimes charges.

In her final statement to the jury, Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski dismissed claims that the men were justified in attempting to perform a citizen's arrest on Arbery under the old law, arguing that they would only be entitled to do so if he had committed a crime in their presence or if they had immediate knowledge of a crime he committed.

She read from what she said was a statement Gregory McMichael made to police:

“(Officer:) 'Did this guy break into a house today?' (McMichael:) 'That's just it, I don't know. That's what I told what's-her-name out there. I said, Listen, you might want to go knock on doors down there because this guy just done something because he was fleeing from — I don't know, he might have gone in somebody's house,'" she read. “You can't make a citizen's arrest because someone's running down the street and you have no idea what crime they have committed that day. You can't hold somebody so the police do show up and go, 'Well, he must have done something. Why don't you police officers go figure out what it was that he went and did today.' But that's what Greg McMichael told the police."

Dunikoski also sought to dismantle the defendant's claims they were acting in self-defense, feeling threatened by the unarmed Arbery.

Such a claim is not valid if the defendants were the ones who instigated the confrontation, Dunikoski said.

“In this case, they committed four different felonies, including aggravated assault with a shotgun," she said. “They started it. They do not get to claim self defense. And then of course, provocation. You can't force someone to defend themselves against you so you get to claim self defense. This isn't the Wild West."

Dunikoski urged the jurors to find all three men guilty of Arbery's murder even though Travis McMichael fired the fatal shots, comparing them to a team of bank robbers that includes a lookout and a getaway driver. Under Georgia law, all of them would be party to the crime even if they never entered the bank, she said.

“Of course, you're saying, but Linda, only one person had their finger on the trigger in this case, and that was Travis McMichael, so how do we find Greg McMichael and William “Roddie" Bryan guilty of malice murder?" she said. “Under the law in Georgia, it's as if they were all holding the gun together. And in this example, the guy who never got out of the car, who was the getaway driver, is just as guilty. In this example, the guy who got out of the car and stood at the front of the bank is just as guilty. Party to a crime."

Walmsley told jurors they could find Bryan guilty of reckless driving rather than aggravated assault in connection with using his truck to try to stop Arbery, a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Dunikoski showed jurors gruesome photos from the scene, which spurred Arbery's father to leave the courtroom and his mother to cry out, according to pool reports.

She ended her presentation with a photo of a smiling Arbery juxtaposed with a close-up of his face after his death.

“They know exactly what they did, and they know why they did it," she said. “It's not a mystery to them. When you come back with your guilty verdict, all you're doing is telling them we know what you did too, and we're going to hold you responsible for it. Because guess what you did? You turned this young man into that young man. That's what you did, for absolutely no good reason at all."

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

Georgia Supreme Court gets case challenging arrests of lawmakers at state Capitol

The ACLU of Georgia and other activist groups are weighing in on a state Supreme Court case involving the 2018 arrest of U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams that could shape the rights of Georgians to protest under the state Capitol.

At issue is state code barring anyone from “recklessly or knowingly to commit any act which may reasonably be expected to prevent or disrupt" a session or meeting of the state Legislature.

The ACLU says that statute is too broad, criminalizing not only those who would interrupt a legislative meeting, but also those exercising their right to free speech elsewhere on the Capitol campus.

“The freedom to speak does not mean that speakers cannot be held accountable for their actions if they cross the line into abuse," the ACLU wrote in an amicus brief filed Monday with the Georgia Supreme Court on behalf of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, Feminist Women's Health Center, Georgia Conference of the NAACP, Georgia Equality, Georgia STAND UP, Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates and the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But the law cannot just prophylactically fill in the gray areas between freedom and accountability by preemptively banning more speech than is necessary—including swaths of non-disruptive speech (however offensive or distasteful)—as a front-end cushion to prevent some speech from rising to the level of disruptive 'abuse.'"

Georgia Capitol Police invoked that code in November, 2018 when they arrested Williams, an Atlanta Democrat and then a state senator, along with other protesters in the Gold Dome's rotunda as they demonstrated over the ballot counting process in that year's race for governor in which Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by about 50,000 votes.

State Rep. Park Cannon, an Atlanta Democrat, was arrested under the same statute in March after she knocked on an office door as Kemp was inside signing a controversial voting bill. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis declined to prosecute the case.

The rotunda is a common location for demonstrations and press conferences during a legislative session, and the protesters said their rally did not disrupt proceedings in the House chamber.

“The Legislature is loud and boisterous," said Richard T. Griffiths, president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “You've got lots of things going on, and in this particular case, the protests were loud and boisterous, but they were not disrupting the business of the House or the Senate. We believe that the First Amendment protects such speech, essentially petitioning their government from within the building."

The demonstrators said they had their hands zip-tied behind their backs, with one defendant charging he suffered injuries from having his hands bound for a prolonged time in front of a backpack he was wearing. They were taken to Fulton County Jail, where they said they were kept for 10 hours without food, water or a sufficiently available restroom.

The charges against the demonstrators were dropped the following June, with the Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan stating that the officers were correct in performing the arrest, but adding that he needed to consider the free speech ramifications.

“Our decision here does not reflect condemnation of that arrest decision; this decision is a choice to let the arrest itself serve as punishment for the crime," Morgan said. “Our decision here is a balance of the absolute need for public safety and the right to free speech in a public forum."

Three months later, Williams and nine other defendants filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the statute violates both the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions.

They point to another state supreme court decision, State v. Fielden, in which the court ruled a statute with similar language unconstitutional: “A person who recklessly or knowingly commits any act which may reasonably be expected to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, gathering, or procession is guilty of a misdemeanor."

In that decision, the court ruled in favor of a group of silent protestors arrested after a 2006 Valdosta City Council meeting, finding the language was so broad it could apply to someone heckling a referee during a sports game or playing loud music while a neighbor was hosting a dinner party.

Lawyers representing the defendants argue the code under which they were arrested is also too broad: “the challenged statute violates the First Amendment because it does not require proof of intent to disrupt, does not require proof that acts would substantially impair any session, and does not require proof of any actual disruption."

The federal court sent the case to the Georgia Supreme Court to rule whether the statute violates the state constitution.

Attorney General Chris Carr is representing the defendants. His office declined to respond to the new brief citing an inability to comment on an ongoing case.

In a Dec. 3 filing, lawyers representing the 12 law enforcement defendants named in the lawsuit said the officers were justified in their decision to arrest the protesters and the Fielden precedent is not relevant because the statute the protesters violated is tailored to the Capitol.

“It is limited to conduct reasonably expected to prevent or disrupt sessions or meetings of members of the Georgia General Assembly," they wrote. “And it is also limited, necessarily, to conduct which occurs in and around the offices and chambers in which the legislature conducts its business. Section 16-11-34.1's reach and, accordingly, the extent to which it may deter any protected speech, are far narrower than the statute at issue in Fielden."

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

Georgia's rural Trump-supporting turf drags down state's COVID vaccination rank

When Grantville Councilman Jim Sells started feeling sick this summer, he tried to tough it out.

He described himself as a hardcore conservative and a skeptic of masks, vaccines and other COVID-19 precautions. He tried some home remedies he read about online, but nothing helped, so he checked himself into the hospital, not knowing just how close he was to death.

This article was originally published at Georgia Recorder

“I'm trying to say as they're taking off my clothes, 'What are we doing here?' And they said, 'You're admitted. You're not leaving.' And then the doctor comes over and says, 'You're in really bad shape. I don't know if we can help you. Do you want us to resuscitate you?' And now I'm in shock. I went in there because I'm just not feeling well, and she's telling me I'm in real bad shape," he said.

During the first 18 hours of what would become a 16-day hospital stay, Sells and his doctors did not know whether he would live or die. Luckily, he responded well to his treatment. He's back home and feeling better every day, he said, and now he's on a mission to persuade other conservatives that COVID-19 is real, dangerous and preventable.

“I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my friends pounding heaven and the doctors and nurses at Fayette Piedmont," he said. “Every day is an extra day for me. I want people to know we can save some lives here and save some hospital stays, if we can educate them on how COVID kills you, and how you can tell your lungs are going bad for $10 to $30 with an oximeter.

“But even more importantly, if you get the vaccine, now you can save passing this on, and like my wife, you can be here to help those unvaccinated that wind up in bad shape."

Sells said he blames much of the problem on social media, which he said creates an echo chamber by showing people content that will not challenge their beliefs, and for conservatives, the algorithms often select anti-vaccine content. Sells' own Facebook page, which was once host to mainly religious, pro-police and military and personal posts, is now dominated by calls to the hardcore anti-vaccine crowd to avoid his fate and get the shot.

But convincing skeptical Georgians to get a jab will not be an easy task.

Rural-urban divide

Only 44% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, compared with more than 53% for the nation. Though the state has moved up in state rankings, it is still near the end of the pack, ahead of only West Virginia, Idaho, Mississippi, Alabama and Wyoming in fully vaccinated residents, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data compiled by the New York Times. And vaccine hesitancy is not spread equally throughout the state.

Each of the counties with the 10 lowest vaccination rates is a rural county, according to the Georgia Office of Rural Health, while only one of the top 10 vaccinated counties — Terrell County — is.

Among those bottom counties, only 26.8% of residents have gotten at least one shot, while that number for the top vaccinated counties is 57%. Overall, 52% of Georgians have gotten at least one dose.

That's not necessarily surprising, said Georgia State University public health professor Dr. Harry J. Heiman.

“We know that our health care infrastructure in the state, particularly in rural areas, is poor, with rural hospitals continuing to close despite populations that, in general, are older, with more comorbidities and at a higher rate of people living with disabilities," he said. “So there may also be more significant access barriers in terms of people being able to easily get the vaccine in rural counties, compared to urban areas."

The average infection rate in the 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates over the last two weeks is more than 35% higher than in the 10 with the highest vaccine rates, though with their much smaller population levels, a relatively small spike in the number of cases can be magnified in rural areas, Heiman cautions.

Still, the difference is stark.

“Think about how Georgia might do if the other 149 counties had vaccination rates that would still be in general lower than the national average, but the average of the top 10, we'd be seeing significantly fewer cases, hospitalizations and deaths."

Political divide

Politics could also provide a partial explanation for the difference, Heiman said.

“You also see pretty significant political differences between urban and rural counties in our state, and we know from polling data that political affiliation and ideological affiliation has, unfortunately, influenced behavior around people getting vaccinated and also wearing masks," he said.

In general, that bears out in the data, with most of the lowest-ranking counties voting for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election and the highest-ranking counties choosing President Joe Biden.

The vaccines were developed under the Trump administration, a fact that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp likes to point out while encouraging skeptical Georgians to talk to their health care provider or pastor about getting vaccinated.

Sells said he has found namechecking Trump can be a tool to get skeptical conservatives to start listening, but ultimately, he feels that the more effective path is to take politics out of it.

“It is not a political issue, and that's part of the problem with some conservatives," he said. “Fauci is a foul word to a conservative. Everything he says, you've got to do the opposite because he said it. What we need to listen to is, if nothing else, the doctors and nurses, the ones at the hospital that can't do anything, all the people they pulled off of other floors that used to do other things that can't because they've got to have them in ICU helping these COVID patients that can't breathe. Our hospitals are crippled."

More than a third of the 17,000 Georgians hospitalized as of Wednesday are COVID-19 patients, a higher number than at the previous winter high point, and nearly 97% of Georgia's intensive care unit beds are in use.

But the connection between a conservative worldview and vaccine skepticism is not absolute.

Georgia's top-performing county, Fayette, voted for Trump by a small margin, and other highly vaccinated areas like Oconee, Greene and Forsyth counties chose the Republican candidate more decisively.

Sells said some of his conservative friends are not receptive to his message, but many of those who are, like him, personally affected by COVID-19.

“I get a lot of kickback," he said. “They just haven't had a close friend go through it. They haven't been to a funeral. Let me tell you who's getting vaccinated, it's the people going to funerals and praying for their friends that are in the hospital near death hoping they come out. Those people are getting vaccinated. They're finding out what's really going on firsthand."

Heiman said he's still hopeful people will decide to protect themselves before they or a loved one become seriously ill.

“Many people have been humbled by the ferocity of this delta surge, and I think that the outliers, the counties with very high numbers of voters for Trump with high vaccination rates and low percentages of Trump voters with low vaccination rates, speaks to the fact that we need to do everything we can in every county that has a low rate, and we have the opportunity to convince more people to get vaccinated," he said. “Polling data also suggests that the number of people who reported in polls that they will never get a vaccine continues to drop down, so hopefully, we have opportunities to do more."

Vaccine incentives

A good way to do that is to partner with trusted members of local communities like pastors, local doctors or pharmacists to provide unbiased information, Heiman said.

The Georgia Department of Public Health's 18 public health districts are each taking different approaches based on the areas they serve, said Georgia Department of Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam.

“In some cases it's working with the faith-based community, in other districts there are established community groups, and some districts have local government officials that are working to spread vaccine messages — Savannah's mayor comes to mind, but there are many others throughout the districts," she said.

Some local governments have been experimenting with incentives for those who go under the needle. A DeKalb County drive in which residents received a $100 gift card for getting a shot brought out more than 1,100 people last month.

Athens-Clarke County has followed suit, offering $100 gift cards to anyone who lives, works or studies in the county who gets their first vaccine. They can earn another $100 for their follow-up shot as well.

Since the program began Sept. 3, the number of people getting vaccinated has increased tenfold, said Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz.

The unified city-county government went a step further Tuesday, implementing a mandate for government employees which may be the first of its kind in the state.

Employees who are vaccinated by Nov. 10 will receive an extra $200 and eight extra vacation hours.

Those who do not comply could face disciplinary action.

“There are some masking requirements if you remain unvaccinated, and then I do believe that what's likely as we move forward is that we'll probably revisit both the carrot and the stick components of the program," Girtz said.

An employee survey found the workers were split about 50-50, Girtz said, but commissioners felt the move will keep the workforce healthy and help protect the residents they interact with.

“One of the things that we believe is that when you work in the public sector, you work for the public, and everything that you do ought to be for the health and welfare of the broader populace," he said. “So this is an opportunity whether somebody is at the front desk of a parks facility, or visiting somebody for utility service or is a frontline public safety person, that we're ensuring that we're most likely to keep the public healthy."

Girtz said he is hoping other local governments will adopt similar measures.

“In the sense that DeKalb County's program sort of inspired us, we're hoping that we can inspire others to follow suit, whether that's on the city or the county or even the school district level."

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

Georgia governor sends more National Guard troops to COVID fight as cases and divisions surge

Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey shared a frank and disturbing snapshot of the spread of COVID-19 in the state Monday.

“We are, as I've mentioned before, a little behind some of our other southern states where we are with the delta surge, and this is indeed a delta surge," she told reporters at the Capitol. “Virtually 100% of all our cases are delta variant, and we're now approaching among the worst cases, both in case numbers and hospitalizations that we've had since January, in some cases, actually worse in some parts of the state than we were in January. Saturday, we had 12,223 total cases reported, which was one of our highest daily case rates ever reported. And all 159 of our counties are at a high transmission level. So all these areas are considered in the red zone."

According to her department, 43% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, compared with 52.5% for the nation, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The recent surge in cases coincides with the return to class for many Georgia students, and cases have quadrupled among school-aged children, Toomey said, with the sharpest increase among 11 to 17-year-olds.

The COVID-19 symptoms are typically less severe among young people, but they can sometimes become seriously ill, and they can spread the disease to others.

“What's happening, I think, is children are getting infected, and it's being transmitted to others among the family members, so children can transmit the virus, and they are becoming affected," Toomey said. “And fortunately, not as many are becoming hospitalized. We've seen, however, the highest number of weekly outbreaks since the pandemic began, 170 outbreaks statewide, with more than half of these outbreaks in K-12 schools. So the schools are a site where there is COVID transmission going on, and we're working hard with the superintendents to try to address these issues in the schools."

Bringing the public's attention to those harsh facts was welcomed by Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who studies the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia.

“I'm pleased to know that the state is finally talking about that reality, and I'm hopeful that that might signal a change in leadership when it comes to talking about COVID, and how it spreads and the importance of layering those protective strategies in those high-risk environments," she said.

Most of the hospitalized Georgians and nearly all of the recent deaths are among the unvaccinated, and vaccines will be the key to getting out of the crisis, said Toomey, adding that the state Department of Public Health has been expanding vaccination capacity across the state.

“We have the capacity to vaccinate more and more people, we just aren't getting people coming to be vaccinated," she said.

Calling in the National Guard

To help slow the rising tide of unvaccinated people washing up in crowded Georgia emergency departments, Gov. Brian Kemp announced plans to expand the presence of the Georgia National Guard in hospitals.

On Monday, Kemp signed an executive order allowing up to an additional 1,500 troops to be deployed to help out in mostly non-medical roles at hospitals. Including troops authorized by earlier executive orders, the National Guard may now deploy up to 2,500 servicemembers at the discretion of Adjutant General of the Georgia Department of Defense Thomas Carden.

The governor's latest order also suspends regulations for commercial trucks, which he said will ensure hospitals have adequate supplies of oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients.

Kemp also announced new incentives for state employees to be vaccinated in the form of a $150 Visa gift card or a $480 credit that can be used for medical expenses. That's on top of an offer last week of a day off Friday during which state workers are asked, but not required, to be vaccinated.

Also last week, Kemp pledged to spend $125 million to help hospitals hire 1,500 new staffers with dozens of them directed to rural hospitals, a process that is still underway.

“We're literally working every day with every single vendor that we can find to hire every single person," Kemp said. “And as soon as we are getting one of those folks, we're sending them where they're needed. Most certainly, our rural hospitals had a big need, but also our metro systems do as well. But we were never under the illusion that we were going to be able to hire 1,500 people in a week or two. It's going to take us some time. But that is something we're actively working on."

Last week, the National Guard deployed 105 troops with medical training to 10 Georgia hospitals, followed by 75 regular soldiers to the same hospitals.

Service members with medical training are often unavailable because they are already fighting COVID-19 in their civilian jobs, Kemp said, but soldiers without health expertise can also be a big help.

“When I was talking to hospital CEOs the other day, I was like 'What else do you need?' And they started saying, you know, we can just help people, directing traffic, telling people 'don't come into the emergency room to get a test, you can go to the health department that's two blocks away.' You know, where do I park? Helping in cafeterias, cleaning, any of those jobs that they just need help with, turning rooms in hospitals, serving their clientele."

The troops will be force multipliers by freeing up trained staff to perform the duties the soldiers cannot do, Kemp said.

“The other thing is, and I've heard this from the CEOs, it's a real morale booster to let the people in the hospital know that are literally working 18-hour shifts that they appreciate the people who listen and they know how hard it is there right now, so I think it's been a morale booster to those health care heroes as well," he said.

Many health care workers could use a morale boost at the moment as cases approach record levels. Some have held news conferences pleading with Georgians to vaccinate, wear masks and socially distance as their hospitals surpass capacity.

And Toomey said some frontline health workers receiving vaccines have received threats, causing at least one mobile vaccination drive to shut down.

“I just said this is wrong. This is absolutely wrong," Toomey said. “These people are giving their lives to help others, to help us in the state. We in Georgia can do better. We should be thanking these individuals who are trying to get life-saving vaccines to our state."

Kemp also condemned the people behind the threatening messages Toomey said health workers have been receiving.

“I think this is a time for all Georgians to reflect back on the early days of the pandemic when people were delivering meals and donuts and other things to folks working in the hospitals and thanking their public health workers, and that's what we should continue to do," he said. “We need to unite in these tough times, not be divided, let's all continue to work and be respectful in the days ahead."

The news was saddening, but not surprising given the political climate, Schmidtke said.

“It's really disappointing, and I wish that things were different," she said. “Unfortunately, we have a situation where, for whatever reason, one of the political parties has made it part of their brand's identity to deny the reality of this virus. And in many ways, they've sort of weaponized that among their followers against the health care community. And that's very dangerous. What I would say to health care workers is that I'm hopeful that those people that are out there are the minority, but it's going to become more important for health care facilities to think about security and making sure that their staff is protected."

No mandates

Kemp has not gone as far in opposing mask or vaccine mandates as some other Republican governors — Iowa, Tennessee, South Carolina, Utah and Oklahoma are facing federal investigations into prohibitions against mask mandates in schools. Kemp has in recent weeks said he is content to let districts decide for themselves.

But Kemp continues to oppose other mandates, including in the University System of Georgia, casting doubts on whether they are effective in stopping the spread of the delta variant.

“This delta variant is spreading everywhere," he said. “You can look at states, you can look at counties in the state. They have all kinds of different policies you can compare. Hawaii, who's on perennial lockdown, to states in the south that are not doing that. The numbers aren't any different, the trajectories aren't any different. The same thing in a place like Missouri, which was the hottest state in the country for the longest period of time, many counties that had mandates, other counties that did not, the delta variant still spread."

Many medical experts roundly reject that idea.

“I have not seen data to suggest that what the governor has said is true," Schmidtke said. “I think it's a convenient talking point, but it doesn't have any basis in fact."

Kemp said Georgia needs to stay focused on spreading the word about vaccines.

“Operation Warp Speed that was created in the Trump administration, in my opinion, is a medical miracle," he said. “I'm glad I'm vaccinated. I'm glad my whole family's vaccinated. I know that there are people out there that have vaccine hesitancy for a lot of different reasons."

Kemp urged those vaccine-resisting Georgians to speak with a medical professional, faith leader or friend who had received the vaccine before making what he called “a medical decision that can possibly save your life."

“We shouldn't be fighting about this," he said. “It's just causing division. It's causing people's blood pressure to go up. We need to continue to educate and advocate for people getting the vaccine. And look, at the end of the day, there's going to be people that don't want to do that. And this is America. This is Georgia, and you can do that. But the fact is, you're going to remain at risk of being in the hospital with COVID-19 and you run the risk of being on a ventilator, and you run the risk of being on a ventilator for two or three weeks and then dying. And that is a decision that everyone is going to have to make."

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

'They're not masking': Tensions flare in Georgia as schools struggle to cope with children's COVID-19 surge

For many Cobb County residents, the local school district tops their list of reasons for moving to the suburban county north of Atlanta.

This article was originally published at Georgia Recorder

High schools there are often ranked among the best in the state and country, and for sale signs outside of Cobb homes often feature the name of the local high school in bold, capital letters.

Natalie Subyak felt the same way for most of the nearly six years she has lived there with her husband and four children, but that started to change last year as the pandemic began to affect everything, including school life.

It was not an easy decision, but the family has decided to move. They were hoping to be in their new Walton County home before classes began, but construction has been delayed.

“It's a strange feeling, because I mean, we really selected where we are living because of the schools, and it just kind of showed me that it doesn't matter what the GreatSchools rating is, if they're not going to behave like a community and really care about one another, whether they believe the same thing or not, It's not going to matter that they have good literacy scores, because you're still going to deal with all this extra drama, all this back and forth," said Subyak, a retail manager. “I just never would have anticipated feeling this way."

A difficult start to the school year

The pandemic has parents across Georgia feeling stressed as districts adapt on the fly to soaring numbers of sick children.

The COVID-19 symptoms are typically no worse than a cold for most children and young adults, but in rare cases they can become seriously ill, and experts warn that crowded hallways and classrooms can spread the virus to more vulnerable relatives at home.

More than 103,000 Georgians between 5 and 17 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state Department of Public Health data, and cases are rapidly increasing.

Some educators say teaching in classrooms with multiple absences has become the norm, and some districts are temporarily closing classroom doors in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 as local hospitals stretch their capacity — doctors have been pleading Georgians to mask up, and Gov. Brian Kemp has sent more staff as well as members of the Georgia National Guard to assist beleaguered medical workers, but hospitals continue to divert patients arriving by ambulance because of overcrowded emergency departments, according to the Department of Public Health.

Statewide, 26 districts and charter schools are going virtual, according to data tracked by The Associated Press.

Ware County students are set to head back to school Sept. 7 after a two-week pause with no virtual instruction. There simply were not enough employees to run the schools, the district said on social media.

“Some staff members are dealing with their own illness or sickness in their families, so they are unable to work right now," a district representative wrote on Facebook. “Staff members at two schools are grieving significant losses. Many of our staff members have reported that this has been the most difficult start of a new year they've ever experienced. For those reasons and others, we felt the best course of action was to hit the pause button and give staff and students time to recover physically and emotionally."

Many districts are moving classes, grades or entire schools online as the situation deteriorates. Clayton County announced Tuesday it would be moving nine of its 67 schools online in response to increasing infections.

Other schools are responding to rising cases by implementing mask mandates. At least 56 of Georgia's 180 districts representing more than half of Georgia's nearly 2 million public school students are now required to mask up, according to the AP data.

Masks optional

But some large districts, including Cherokee, Paulding and Cobb counties are declining to follow CDC guidelines and implement universal indoor masking in their schools, sparking fierce debate outside district meetings.

Cobb County has been at the forefront of Georgia's recent political shift, with its large, young and rapidly diversifying population increasingly voting for Democrats in what was once a Republican stronghold.

Last year, the county commission, sheriff's office and district attorney all flipped Democratic, but the school board remains under Republican control.

Discussions over masks have sparked protests and counter protests outside of district meetings, as well as public outcry after one board member sent a conspiratorial anti-vaccine video to concerned parents.

Subyak said she feels Republican members of the board are catering to a small but vocal minority of conservatives who oppose COVID safety measures for cultural rather than health reasons.

“We've had so many great teachers and some of the administrators are really kind, good people," she said. “The reality is, when we go to the schools, last year, this year, they're not making decisions that are based off of scientific recommendations. They're not masking, they're not treating you seriously with reporting the number of children who have COVID. A lot of times it can take days or even a week for our parents to get notified that their child was a close contact."

Talia Mejia, the mom of a Cobb County third grader, is teaching her son at home out of concern about the virus' spread in the state's second-largest school district, which does not have a mask mandate.

Mejia, who is pregnant, said she's worried about what catching COVID-19 could mean for her, her son and the new baby.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the overall risk of severe illness is low, pregnant women are more likely to develop serious symptoms than non-pregnant people, and pregnant women with COVID-19 are at increased risk for preterm birth.

Seeing the largely unmasked crowds of students and teachers at her son's schools made Mejia anxious, she said. On top of that, her son's homeroom teacher was out the second week of classes.

“And then he actually got two close contact letters in the first three weeks of school that he was there," said Mejia, who works in public relations and marketing. “And so what that means is that he was in contact directly with someone who was COVID positive."

As of Friday, there have been 1,764 reported cases of COVID-19 in Cobb County Schools.

“So of course, I did not bring him in the next day, I decided to quarantine. He's been quarantined," Mejia said Wednesday. “Tomorrow would be the tenth day, but I withdrew him today because I was just like, this is not going to get any better, it's only going to get worse."

The boy has been studying at home with the help of mom and an online homeschool curriculum, and so far, it's been a good experience.

He's having fun learning, they're planning field trips, and most importantly, Mejia said she has less worry about her family getting sick.

“It provides freedom for my son, for me and him not to be scared," she said. “I wouldn't even touch him when he would come back, he would go directly into the shower, and I wouldn't touch him and I wouldn't cuddle with him at night. Now, we can cuddle at night. Now I can be with him."

For now, things are good, but Mejia said she may send her son back next year if the virus is under control so he can socialize with other children there.

It's just frustrating that the district appears not to have been prepared for so many cases, she said.

“A bunch of people have talked about the potential for variants and so forth, so even if they decided no virtual, there should have been another plan or something in place," she said. “Because the teachers are overworked, they're flustered. So when I take my kid to school, I'm getting an overworked, scared, flustered teacher that may or may not be there."

The grass is always greener

But it's not just parents in mask-optional districts who want in. Some in mask-required districts say they want out.

Barbara Skok is a Columbus mom and the founder of a group called Moms Against Mandatory Masking.

She said her children are stuck in a kind of limbo because they will not wear masks in school. She's teaching them at home but keeping them enrolled so they can go back once the mandate is lifted.

“We can't actually pull them out in homeschool because then when masks are made optional, our kids lose their slots in their schools here, you're pushed out of your zoned school, like they fill up because they're choice schools here," she said. “So you have to stay enrolled. So currently, they're registered with Muscogee County School District, all four children, but they have been unenrolled by their schools because they weren't allowed in their schools on the first day."

Skok said her children were not allowed in the door that day.

“I would never cause a scene in front of my children, but they just said 'no, kids have to wear masks,' I said 'no, we don't consent to masks. My son just became verbal six months ago. He's autistic. He's been known to revert. I just absolutely can't.' They said, 'well, they can't come in school without masks.'"

Skok said she has friends who have or live with people who have medical conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19, and she thinks they should have the right to wear masks, but she wants her family to have the same right to decide for themselves.

For Skok's son with autism, masks are difficult to keep on and they prevent him from communicating. For the others, she said it's a matter of setting an example.

“My biggest thing is, I'm going to tell my children, 'hey, just do this because people just tell you to do it, OK? Everybody else is doing it, and everybody else thinks you should do it.' And they say 'Why? Does it protect me? Does it protect others?' No, it doesn't do any of those things. But because other people think you should. This is what I'm supposed to tell them?"

The CDC says multiple studies have found community masking reduces the spread of the virus by preventing the spread of infected respiratory droplets and has no significant adverse health effects.

Skok said if the school district offered a virtual option, she'd gladly sign them up, but for now, she's doing her best to make sure they learn at home and hoping the mandate will be lifted so they can get back to class.

“I don't know how they're getting away with it," she said. “I don't know how they're getting away with taking money from taxpayers and refusing to provide that service to the taxpayer. And I'm a nobody, I'm just a mom of four. So the fact that we have no doctors rising up against it, no lawyers rising up against it, that everybody is just happy to comply, and just go on, just shows me 'Okay, well, you need to stop fighting. And you need to just start taking care of your kids. You can't want more for a community than it wants for itself.' And so, I'm going to sit back and homeschool my kids while paying for their public education, and honestly, just troll the hell out of the school board."

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

Georgia Republican says vaccine saved him during severe COVID bout

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods has recovered from a severe breakthrough case of COVID-19 that left him hospitalized, Woods announced in a statement Tuesday.

This article was originally published at Georgia Recorder

Woods, a Republican who took office in 2015, contracted the illness during the summer after being vaccinated in March.

“I personally experienced what thousands of our fellow Georgians have been through or are now going through," Woods said. “I had a loved one, my wife, who was experiencing COVID during the same time I had it. Like others, she wasn't able to visit me in the hospital and we could only interact through phone calls and FaceTimes. I would not want anyone, or any loved one, to experience what I went through."

Woods said his doctors told him his decision to become vaccinated before he contracted the disease may have saved his life.

“Though my symptoms were severe, and I did experience a breakthrough case, my doctors fully believe that the vaccine assisted in mitigating the effects of the virus and kept me alive during the ordeal," he said.

“I am not just speaking to you as State School Superintendent, but as a fellow Georgian, when I say: I encourage all who are eligible to consult with their doctor and prayerfully and thoughtfully consider getting vaccinated," he added.

Doctors say vaccinated people who do contract COVID-19 typically experience less severe symptoms than those who have not received the shot.

Georgia school districts began their semesters with a range of approaches — some have required masks and offered virtual options from the beginning, some have adopted masking requirements or closed down in-person classes after experiencing high case numbers, and others are proceeding with masks optional.

Berrien County Schools became one of the latest to announce plans Sunday to temporarily go virtual because of the pandemic.

In Berrien County, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests for 5- to 17-year-olds was 3,226 per 100,000, more than three times the state average for that age group. Experts say high test positivity usually indicates not enough tests are being given.

As of Friday, there have been more than 144,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Georgians between the ages of 5 and 17, though the true number of cases is likely higher because of low testing. More children between 10 and 17 tested positive last week than those in any other age group, and their rate of infection is increasing more rapidly than other groups as well.

Children and young adults typically suffer only minor symptoms and recover quickly from COVID-19, but they can develop severe illness in rare cases, and experts worry that young children can easily pass on the disease to more vulnerable people.

The rising case numbers and variety of stances have led to protests and passionate disagreements in school board and PTA meetings between groups of parents who want stronger protections against spreading the disease and those who believe mask mandates infringe on their rights.

Woods, a longtime classroom educator, said he regularly checked in with the Georgia Department of Education and heard parent and teacher feedback from the hospital.

“Gov. (Brian) Kemp gathered feedback as well in a recent call with district superintendents from across the state," he said. “The purpose was to get an on-the-ground assessment of school reopening, part of the strong commitment the governor has had, since coming into office, to listen to school leaders. Superintendents on the call stated they appreciated and needed the continued flexibility from the state to respond to the events happening on-the-ground."

Woods stressed the importance of face-to-face education and called on school board members to remain responsive to the needs of the communities they serve.

“As school leaders do everything possible to keep their doors open and in-person learning going, we have a responsibility to do our part, too. This virus cannot be strangled by mandates or planned into non-existence, but we can work together to overcome this common threat," he said.

“Even though we as Georgians are fiercely independent minded, we have always rallied together as one in times of need," he added. “In facing natural and national disasters, we have always pulled together to face and overcome the challenge at hand.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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