Vocal protests by teachers of a return-to-building announcement by Gwinnett Schools were heeded by Superintendent J. Alvin WIlbanks. Teachers no longer are mandated to report. But there are district employees who still have to show up at their offices.

Gwinnett teachers: Do you feel you were heard? What about staff who still must report?

In a quick reversal, Gwinnett County Public Schools said today teachers can mostly work from home after a surprise return-to-work-sites plan announced last week sparked thousands of complaints.

Rather than the mass summons that all teachers report the week of May 18, principals will decide with their staffs when and how they will return to the school to close down classrooms.

Many teachers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there was nothing the district outlined in the come-on-back letter that could not be done from home.  And they argued that returning a pencil box to a student was not sufficient reason for them to show up for a week of May 18 during a pandemic. 

They also maintained their principals had already begun to address a rotating return to close down classrooms, so a universal directive from the central office was not needed. 

Teachers expressed doubt they would be heard, noting that their district, acclaimed for innovation and achievement, is also known for being led by J. Alvin Wilbanks, a strong-minded leader who charts his own path for his schools, often well ahead of the rest of Georgia. 

When I first began writing about education policy, I talked to a Gwinnett principal at a national education conference about the strengths and weaknesses of working in Gwinnett. His response was the strengths and weaknesses were one in the same: Gwinnett schools are led by a smart and effective superintendent who believes in hard work and trusts his own judgment most of all and most of the time. 

(In balance of that view, another principal who left DeKalb for Gwinnett told me once that if Wilbanks trusts you, he lets you run with the ball, unlike DeKalb where principals were on short tethers.) 

This time, Wilbanks deferred to the judgment of his teachers, who contended that any benefit from showing up the week of May 18 was outweighed by the risk. Their vocal protests -- more of a revolt than a reaction -- were heeded by Superintendent Wilbanks.

But there are district employees who still have to show up at their offices and feel a double standard is at work. 

Last week, the governor lifted a statewide shelter-in-place order for most Georgians, which led many companies, including shopping malls, to call workers back to the job. 

But that doesn’t mean workers feel their safety is still not a question. As a Gwinnett Schools employee explained to me: 

Since March 16th, bookkeepers, administrative assistants, principals and head custodians were the "essential" employees in each GCPS school reporting everyday, answering questions/calls from teachers, parents, vendors and other stakeholders regarding a plethora of topics from event cancellations, laptop pick ups, processing refunds, distributing paper student work packets and staff pick up of personal items, medications, etc.

Obviously, there are other organizations that have the same predicament, but I just wanted to share that we, too, exist at GCPS, and have been concerned throughout this entire, unfortunate debacle. 

We continued to use our gas, leave our families, incurring those regular work expenses, and also new health challenges of going into the office everyday...with no change in pay, hours or responsibilities. We've kept the wheels turning turning!! I'm essentially echoing the sentiments of those who have been home, and hopefully in isolation with their families. We desperately want a return to some sort of normalcy and put closure to COVID-19, but do it using a safe, organized methodology.

And a Gwinnett resident said:

They are persisting in their policy to return central office staff to the instructional support center in Suwanee. This is just as reckless and maybe even more dangerous as there are around 400 people who work in this building. Please don't let this partial effort on their part go unchecked. 

The teachers are some of the heroes that are rising up during this time but those who support them are important too. They should not have to choose between livelihood and health. I believe the leadership of GCPS needs to be held accountable for this.

Here is the official statement today from Gwinnett:

On Friday, May 1, Gwinnett County Public Schools released its plan to return employees to work sites following six weeks of online learning and working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. GCPS leaders received feedback on the plan from teachers and others who shared concerns about returning to the work site at this time. That feedback led district leaders to consider adjustments to the return-to-work sites plan.  

The adjustments, which take effect immediately, balance the district’s need to successfully close out the school year with the reality that many employees face personal or family situations that make it very difficult for them to return to the work site, and the amount of time individual employees may need to spend at school to complete end-of-year tasks could vary widely. These considerations led to the following revised return-to-work site plans for GCPS employees.  

School-Based Employees

Continue the current schedule for principals, assistant principals, office staff, custodians, and School Nutrition Program staff. 

Teachers and other staff will no longer be required to report as previously communicated in the original “Return-to-Work Sites Plan.”

Principals will work with teachers and other staff to arrange times for them to return to the school to close down their classrooms or work spaces and complete other necessary tasks.  

Central Office Personnel

All employees who hold director-level positions and their administrative assistants are working on site as of Wednesday, May 6. Division leaders are working with staff to adjust schedules as needed to address individual employee situations and to limit the number of people in a work location. 

Similarly, Division leaders will work with all remaining central office staff members, who will return to their work sites beginning the week of May 11.

As the COVID-19 pandemic remains a fluid situation, Gwinnett County Public Schools will continue to provide updates to employees about the transition back to their work sites.  

During this uncertain time, Gwinnett teachers and support staff have worked tirelessly to serve students and support teaching and learning and the operations of Gwinnett County Public Schools. 

Our people are our greatest resource and we must take care of them while also conducting the business of the school district. We know that our employees are eager to close out the school year strong for our students. We believe this adjusted return-to-work sites plan provides the flexibility that will allow this to happen while also addressing employees’ concerns about the health and welfare of themselves and their families.


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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.