Dozens of teachers and their supporters marched a mile to the district offices of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee on Monday carrying signs such as, “who is dying to go back to school?” and “teachers should work from home.”

They were demonstrating against last month’s decision by the board of education to offer in-person classes when the school year begins next month. By the time the morning march was underway, the district had reversed its decision and joined with most other metro Atlanta school systems in offering online-only classes.

“There is no replacement for face-to-face instruction, and that was our preferred model for starting the school year,” Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in a news release. He said the change to virtual learning was made because cases of the coronavirus continue to soar in Georgia.

The hundred or so marchers, organized by Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice, were joined by an estimated 200 others outside the district’s office.

Members of the Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice group and their supporters carry signs as they march down Old Peachtree Road NW, in Suwanee, on July 20. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

“We’re here out of love and out of hope,” said Shavaun Mincey, a Gwinnett assistant principal, as temperatures reached the mid-90s. “We love our schools, our county, our state so much that we’re here in the heat helping them do what’s right.”

As of Monday, the state had 145,575 cases of coronavirus and 3,176 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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Many teachers didn’t want to be identified by their name or their school. Some said they feared they could be risking their jobs by speaking out.

“Georgia’s a right to work state. I shouldn’t be standing here. I could be let go at any time,”said Jack Lin, a teacher. “I don’t have a compromised immune system, I don’t have any children. My family lives in California.”

He said he was lending his voice in solidarity for colleagues who are medically fragile, live with elderly relatives or care for someone who’s more susceptible to diseases.

Members of the Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice group and their supporters carry signs as they march down Old Peachtree Road NW, in Suwanee, on July 20. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Aireane Montgomery, a political science teacher, said she understands that digital learning brings hardships for many students.

“That’s why every student needs a laptop and home Wi-Fi,” she said. “We have to ensure equity in education for everyone!”

The district said it’s working to make that happen.

RELATED STORY: Teachers insist their input needed for successful back to school

“The district will check out Chromebooks and internet hot spots to students, based on need, to ensure equitable access to quality digital learning,” Wilbanks’ said.

Many in the crowd questioned why the decision for online-only learning took so long.

“We were waiting for this decision on Thursday,” said organizer Anthony Downey. “How many of you watched the school board meeting expecting this?”

The teachers praised Everton Blair — the lone school board member who has championed online-only classes for the health and safety of teachers, students and staff.

Some demonstrators carried signs calling for the resignation of board of education chairwoman Louise Radloff for saying, “I could strangle him,” in reference to Blair’s dissenting opinion at a meeting on Thursday.

By Sunday, Blair had the support of another board member. District 3 board member Mary Kay Murphy released a statement in support of 100% digital learning.

Gwinnett County Public School administration listens as demonstrators speak during a rally created by the Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice outside of the Gwinnett County Public School building in Suwanee, on July 20. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

“With the health of our students, their families, teachers and staff top of mind, it is my belief that Gwinnett County Public Schools should begin the 2020-2021 school year with online only-instruction, with a return to on-campus learning as soon as the health environment in Gwinnett County allows it,” the statement said.

In a interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Monday, Murphy said Blair’s comments touched her. And she was swayed by Dr. Kathleen Toomey, who said in a news conference Friday that Gwinnett, along with Fulton and DeKalb, made up 26% of COVID-19 cases in Georgia.

Although other board members said they go along with the new plan, not everyone seemed pleased.

“I have profound empathy for those with health concerns,” said Steve Knudsen, District 2 board member. “I also have empathy for parents whose children have suffered and fallen behind over the past several months because of the shutdown of our campuses.”

Forsyth and Cherokee school systems are the last of the top 10 school districts that plan to offer in-person classes.

Forsyth County Schools Board of Education meets Tuesday, so there’s a possibility it may have an announcement, said spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo. “Our COVID numbers are quite different than those larger than us,” she added.

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