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Gwinnett one of few school districts to offer in-person learning

200716-Suwanee-Mary Williams, a parent who is opposed to mandatory face mask requirements, talks with Gwinnett County Public Schools board member Steven Knudsen before the start of the regular board meeting Thursday evening July16, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
200716-Suwanee-Mary Williams, a parent who is opposed to mandatory face mask requirements, talks with Gwinnett County Public Schools board member Steven Knudsen before the start of the regular board meeting Thursday evening July16, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Gwinnett County is one of a few school districts in metro Atlanta to keep its original back to school plans, which includes opening school buildings to students.

At the regular board meeting Thursday, administrators sought to assure the community that they are putting processes in place to make sure student learning will be safe and effective. The district is giving parents the choice of virtual or in-person learning.

“The department has also been developing the Gwinnett County Public Schools Case Investigation Protocol that the district will use when a student or staff member becomes ill or has been exposed to COVID-19,” said Steve Flynt, associate superintendent for school improvement and operations.

Along with Fulton and DeKalb counties, Gwinnett had more than a fourth of all hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The other districts have announced all-virtual instruction for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year.

Of the ten largest school districts in the state, Gwinnett is one of three that will offer in-person learning. The others -- Forsyth and Cherokee -- are considerably smaller. With more than 180,000 students, Gwinnett has a larger enrollment than those combined. This weekend Henry County announced it would go to online learning only.

RELATED STORY: Metro Atlanta school leaders talk back-to-school in community forum

Even though there were difficulties with at-home learning this spring, many parents, teachers and community members cited the growing number of coronavirus infections in metro Atlanta as a compelling reason to delay the start of school or keep all children at home.

“Please ask Marietta, Cobb, Fulton, and Gwinnett why they have not chosen to go full virtual when neighboring districts are???” a person commenting on Facebook during The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Community Conversation Wednesday with superintendents from seven metro Atlanta school systems.

The Marietta, Fulton and Cobb districts announced a change to fully virtual learning the next day.

Another Facebook poster, Holly Kibbe, agreed: “Virtual isn’t forever. It’s just three months. Our concern should be the safety of the children.”

The 90-minute Facebook session didn’t allow for all the questions posed by the 3,300 viewers on the AJC Facebook Live feed as well as the AJC YouTube channel. But it did whet the thirst for more answers.

RELATED STORY: Teachers insist their input needed for successful return to school amid COVID-19

About 30 speakers addressed the board in-person and by phone during public comment periods at Thursday’s board meeting. And almost everyone had back-to-school on their minds.

Monica Shaffer, a Gwinnett County teacher, told the board that her husband had Type I diabetes and is considered medically fragile. She said she doesn’t want to choose between her career and her family’s safety.

“Please consider the data,” she said. “Would you sit in my class knowing you could put the health of a loved one at risk?”

Earlier this month Gwinnett administrators moved the school start date back a week -- from Aug. 5 to Aug. 12. They said the delay will give staff additional time for training.

Professional development in areas of enhanced digital learning methods, social distancing practices and cleaning and disinfecting protocols were among the additional preparation.

“We will have a day for all staff, all teachers ... during pre-planning week,” said Jonathan Patterson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support, adding that increased training on digital teaching will help alleviate some of the problems with online learning in the spring.

Results from a survey released last month showed that about half of students felt stress and/or frustration with online learning.

One of the biggest issues was the lack of technology in some households. Many students didn’t have computers, laptops or chromebooks to effectively engage in distance learning. Those who received devices from school often didn’t have internet services at home.

The board voted to provide funding for chromebooks and hot spots at Thursday’s board meeting. In addition, United Way of Greater Atlanta in Gwinnett County is working in partnership with the district to help bridge that digital divide within the community.

The non-profit has launched a campaign to provide thousands of chromebooks and hotspots for children who need them.

“Our goal is to coordinate and collaborate to make sure every child is supported with their technology needs before school starts on Wednesday, August 12th,” said Rachael Warnsley, County Engagement Director.

That’s probably a contributing factor in a more recent survey that showed 60% of parents are for in-person teaching.

Mary Williams, whose 4th grade daughter has an Individualized Education Plan, doesn’t want to see Gwinnett take all classes virtual.

“My taxes pay for my child to get an education, screen time at home won’t work for her,” she said. Williams was among a handful of parents who were against mandating masks to be worn at school.

“Gov. Kemp said it’s unenforceable for a city to make you wear masks, how can a school district do it?” she added.

Even though the board stuck to allowing in-person teaching, Board member Everton Blair asked them and Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks if they put lives at risk by doing so.

“I’ve been trying to respect the authority of our collective, and recognize the complexity of this issue. I don’t understand how we can lead in the number of cases in this state and choose not to do something else right now,” he said.

The remarks were met with applause.

That didn’t seem to set well with Board chairwoman Louise Radloff. After adjourning the meeting she remarked to Wilbanks in an aside, “I could strangle him!” Radloff, who was defeated in the spring primary election, apparently didn’t realize there was a live microphone nearby.