March 27, 2020 Atlanta: GDOT electronic signs across the metro were displaying COVID-19 messages for motorists Monday morning, March 30, 2020, this one on NB I-85 near Central Avenue in Hapeville. For the third day in a row, the number of new coronavirus cases has slowed significantly in Georgia, even as deaths continue to climb. There are now at least 2,809 confirmed cases of the virus statewide, according to the latest data released Monday by the Georgia Department of Public Health. The latest figures are an increase of less than 5% from Sunday’s cases, much less than the average daily growth the state saw last week. Eighty-seven Georgians have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus, up from 83 reported on Sunday. Less than one-third of those infected are hospitalized. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC/JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC/JOHN SPINK / AJC

Gwinnett educators blast planned return to school. District appears to be listening.

UPDATE Tuesday afternoon from the Gwinnett County Public Schools: (I think employees have been heard.)

“On Friday, May 1, Gwinnett County Public Schools released its plan to return employees to work sites. As has been shared, the district does need to close out the school year and some of that work does have to take place on-site. That said, we have received feedback from teachers and others who shared concerns about returning to the work site at this time. That feedback has led district leaders to consider adjustments to the return-to-work site plan. Staff members are reviewing possible changes that would allow the district to successfully close out the school year while being responsive to employees’ concerns. It is anticipated that a revised plan will be announced tomorrow.”

I believe credit for the announcement that Gwinnett will revisit its planned mass return to school buildings goes to all the district employees who pushed the issue before the public and made strong arguments. And reached out to the AJC in droves. 

I hope the changes the district makes are meaningful and speak to the concerns expressed by so many of the educators in this piece I published this morning. Here is the original story from early today: 

Gwinnett County Public Schools employees continue to reach out with their concerns about the phase-in return to school buildings over the next two weeks.

While teachers are the largest component of Gwinnett’s workforce and vocal in their objections, I am also hearing from office staff who want the public to know they are even more impacted by the return-to-worksite decree.

Last night, I published a explanation from Gwinnett’s communications director of the district’s rationale in bringing back employees and the safety measures that will be in place. 

Sloan Roach said, “While we understand some staff members may be apprehensive about returning to their buildings, our schools are working to put in place sensible and safe measures to ensure social distancing and to keep our folks safe and well. ” 

That did not seem to reassure district staff or mitigate the anger over this policy. They are bombarding the school board with emails, signing a petition condemning the return as dangerous and contacting journalists. 

Here are just a few of the many comments I’ve received in the last few hours: 

--There is also great concern for district personnel returning to the building. On Monday, we all will be back. Although we've been told that it meets the guidelines, I know that when one person in my suite gets sick, we all get sick. Therefore, I'm frightened about going into that environment. Since our office is paperless, I could continue to telecommute as the White House guidelines call for during Phase 1 and Phase 2. I'll be doing exactly the same work in a cubicle as I've been doing at home through telecommuting. 

I'm sad to have dedicated half my life to a system that values policy and perception over the safety of its employees. I feel angry, dismayed, and stunned by this decision when just last week we were told what a great job we were doing with supporting schools virtually and that we would probably continue until the end of the school year. I need my job so I will do as I'm told, but during this pandemic I have lost faith in the leadership that I've admired and appreciated for 20 years. I was so impressed by the superintendent of Fulton County schools who did not use a PR person to represent him, but instead appeared on the news and said he isn't sending his employees back yet because he doesn't feel like it is safe to do so.  I thought my values were aligned with those of the system I've dedicated my life to and serve, but they are not. Perception, power, and policy are of greater importance than the sanctity of life. I will continue to serve and do the right thing even though decisions were made that put people in harm's way and exploited some of the lowest-paid workers in the system. 

--During the final three digital learning days, the district says teachers will mostly be helping students complete their work. Why do we need to be in the school building to accomplish this? It's what we've been doing the entire time. School location offers no advantage here. Why put teachers at risk? If anything, my job will be harder to accomplish because we don't have phones in our rooms and our cell phones don't get a signal. I will have to leave my room in order to call parents and students about their missing work. There are so many holes and flaws in this district's plan and in their explanation. There's no reason for decisions to be made unilaterally, since some schools will have finished the very tasks GCPS mentioned needing to be done. I feel extremely frustrated and let down by this district, and certainly not valued.

--I have read your blogs and articles about the teachers going back to work. What everyone fails to mention is that the Central Office is also going back to work at the Instructional Support Center. Directors and their assistants report this Wednesday, and the rest of us report Monday. Many departments do not have workspaces that comply with social distancing. We have all been successfully working from home since March 18. We knew there would come a time when we would be required to come back, but we also thought it would be on a rotating basis since the work is all getting done. We are also not just coming back for a week. We are 12 month employees, so we are stuck with this situation. Hopefully, it works out.

--I am a GCPS teacher writing because I am concerned and don’t think what the district is doing makes sense or is safe. Before the county decided to bring all of us back for an entire week our principal had been working to bring us back a few at a time to clean out our classrooms and pack up student belongings. That would only have taken a day, and everyone agreed was necessary. But to say we need to go back to do grades is ridiculous because we can do them from home. All of the work that we can do can be done from our homes except for a day of cleaning and organizing our rooms and bagging up student items. Then, there is the issue of some of us sharing a room with one to two other staff members. Being told we can go into the library is not enough, I feel. On top of that, the district approved HVAC work in our building, thinking no one would be in the building for months. So, we will have to work with no air conditioning for five days. Finally, the district made our own children stay home. Day cares are closed, and families are practicing social distancing. And, yet, we can’t and don’t want to bring our children to work. So, our option is to use Families First Coronavirus Relief Act and get 2/3 of our pay.

--Everyone has already been given clear instructions on whatever belongings are in the classroom. They’ve already lived without them for two months. If it was something important - like glasses - they have already been picked up. Their school supplies can be placed in their next classroom for the upcoming year. So, we are to believe we are all going in full-time so kids can get their pencil boxes back?

--Social distancing protocols are only to be used when workers need to provide essential services that cannot be provided at home. Every other district is closing out the year without requiring their employees to return to the school buildings. This is a PR stunt to make GCPS stand out. It is not necessary, and it puts school employees and their families at risk. Additionally, it also endangers the community at large, because after those school employees interact with each other and increase the likelihood of transmission, they will then go shop for groceries, etc. This is foolish, unnecessary and directly contradicts the advice from public health experts. We are not acting privileged by not wanting to endanger our lives, those of our families and countless strangers in the community unnecessarily. 

--Why do teachers have to be the guinea pigs to see if  “the coast is clear” before allowing students and parents back in schools? We don’t need to be in school to finalize prior grades and current digital learning work. That’s what computers are for. You don’t need anything in the classroom. It’s already on computer. What do they mean helping students who need to complete work? Again, we’ve been doing this from home, via Zoom, emailing work, mailing packets to addresses...why do we need to be in building to help students now when we’ve been doing it at home for seven weeks?  

--Communications director Sloan Roach had nine uninterrupted paragraphs of carefully crafted PR speak. Let's break some of it down: 

1) "Principals are adjusting schedules": This is blatantly untrue. Some principals are not adjusting schedules at all, while others are merely extending hours. 

2) "Sign-ups so that staff can have a slot to meet with administrators or the bookkeeper": The large majority of staff members do not need to meet with administrators or the bookkeeper to close out this year or any of the years prior. Meanwhile, those who do could easily do so through a virtual meeting or come into the building at their discretion. 

3) "Teachers primarily will be working with students who need to turn in missed assignments": Teachers have been doing this exact work for well over month. Students will not be present at school, so what has changed? (The answer is nothing). 

4) "Verifying grades": In teacher speak, this means comparing our grade books to an electronic print out of those grade books. These printouts could easily remain digital in PDF format. The rest of the points that Roach makes in this section are equally irrelevant. Teachers already have both of the data points cited by Roach, students' grades as of March 13 as well as their final first semester grades, in digital format. 

5) "Preparing for families to pick up personal belongings": This point begs the question of whether it is safe to bring families, many of whom will not be equipped with the appropriate PPE, into schools at this time. In addition, perhaps elementary schools are different, but high school students do not have personal belongings in classrooms. There is nothing for teachers to prepare for pick up.

--GCPS teachers all know why this decision was really made. 

1) It is very likely a political favor for the governor to provide visual support for his recent decisions to relax the stay-at-home order (in exchange for future remuneration). 

2) It is most definitely a commercial meant to broadcast that GCPS is thriving. 

3) It is also likely an attempt to reassure the public that GCPS will open as usual this coming August. 

GCPS cannot publicly confirm any of these truths for obvious reasons. Hence the use of tasks that could easily be handled remotely as cover.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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