Area teachers give lessons in place of protest to seek pandemic safety

Janna McCrary (left), a science teacher at Peachtree Ridge High School in Gwinnett County, gives a lesson on viruses outside the Georgia Department of Education in downtown Atlanta. (Photo: Alia Milak/AJC)
Janna McCrary (left), a science teacher at Peachtree Ridge High School in Gwinnett County, gives a lesson on viruses outside the Georgia Department of Education in downtown Atlanta. (Photo: Alia Milak/AJC)

Credit: Alia Malik

Credit: Alia Malik

Janna McCrary has been teaching biology and Advanced Placement environmental science five days a week to in-person and virtual students simultaneously, but Saturday afternoon she sat on the wet grass outside Georgia Department of Education headquarters and did it again.

“Think about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, right?” the Gwinnett County teacher said into her laptop screen, where about a dozen people were watching online while 20 more gathered around McCrary downtown. “Survival of the fittest ... those viruses that have survived those different environments will continue to go on to reproduce, and so they become the ones that become more challenging to fight off, because they have adapted so well to many different environments.”

Area teachers and parents stood around with signs, and a few drove by and honked with their own posters, containing messages such as “We Demand Safety.” They want improved protocols to fight the coronavirus’ spread in classrooms and priority for teachers in the state’s vaccination rollout. But instead of another protest or rally, they decided to do what they do best: teach.

“We’re so tired of yelling,” said Alison Cundiff, a language arts teacher at Duluth Middle School in Gwinnett. “We just want people to know things.”

The “teach-in” featured live lessons on the coronavirus and pandemic safety from teachers and a medical doctor, Michelle “Kanika” Sims, who works at Grady Memorial Hospital and teaches at Morehouse School of Medicine. Other teachers and scientists sent in videos.

“We are making an honest effort to get people on the same page about what this is and ways we can handle it,” Cundiff said. “When you know what you’re up against, you can find the tools to deal with it.”

More than 12,000 students and school employees have tested positive for COVID-19 this school year in metro Atlanta districts, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of public data.

ExploreCOVID-19 cases reported at metro Atlanta public schools

Sims, a Black woman, talked about racial disparities in the health care system and shared her own initial mistrust of the coronavirus vaccine. She has now been vaccinated and urged others to do the same.

In the meantime, she outlined a list of ways teachers can stay safe, including double-masking.

Anthony Downer, co-chair of Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice, wore a T-shirt that read “In Loving Memory of Maude Jones,” the paraprofessional who died last month of COVID-19 after being exposed at the Gwinnett elementary school where she worked.

Priscilla Smith, 64, of Kennesaw, a retired private school teacher whose sister teaches in DeKalb, brought pool noodles to enforce social distancing. The children present ended up fencing with them.

Smith said she thought the teach-in was “a terrific idea.”

“I think we need to do it more, and do it at more times and places where people will see our message,” she said.

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