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Gwinnett parents rally for option to send students to in-person classes

Parents, students and supporters rally against Gwinnett County Public School's decision to make all fall instruction online-only outside Gwinnett Schools Instructional Support Center building in Suwanee on Friday, July 24. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Parents, students and supporters rally against Gwinnett County Public School's decision to make all fall instruction online-only outside Gwinnett Schools Instructional Support Center building in Suwanee on Friday, July 24. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The parking lot at Gwinnett County Public School’s district headquarters was surprisingly full for a July morning. The extra vehicles seen Friday belonged to parents, students and citizens wanting the district return to its initial back-to-school plan allowing in-person instruction.

A crowd of nearly 500 people marched from the back of the parking lot to the entrance of the 200 building. Many did not realize that the administrative offices of Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and other school leaders were on the other side.

“We want choice, hear our voice,” they chanted.

Among them were parents of special needs students who turned out to call for in-person classes when the school year begins. The district is planning online-only classes, and many parents said they were concerned their children wouldn’t received the kind of education they need.

Angela Lacroix has a son with an Individualized Education Plan and she hasn’t been given any specifics on how online classes this fall will be better than they were in the spring.

“It was a disaster,” she said. “I can’t put him through that again.”

Later Friday, Wilbanks issued a statement saying the district’s goal is to return to in-person instruction when possible.

“We understand the frustration of the parents and students here today,” the statement said. “Certainly our preference is to start the school year at school with students and teachers together in classrooms as there is nothing better than face-to-face instruction. However, that transition must be done in a strategic and safe manner.”

The gathering was the third demonstration this week about the district’s plan for the upcoming school year. Friday’s demonstration was the largest. As of Friday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 161,401 cases of COVID-19 and 3,442 deaths.

On Monday, Wilbanks said that Gwinnett would begin the school year with all virtual classes. The announcement came as teachers and their supporters marched to district offices to rally for online-only classes.

“Given the increase in COVID-19 cases in Gwinnett and the concerns expressed by our community, this was the right decision to make at this time,” Wilbanks said in Monday’s statement. “Our focus now must be on starting the year strong digitally and taking the steps we all need to take to stay healthy and to turn the numbers in the right direction.

Marisa Bifalco, who was at Friday’s gathering, helped organize a Facebook group and a petition for the parents upset that their choice was taken away.

“I understand some parents need for their children to have school from home,” said Bifalco, the mother of a 7th- and 11th-grader. “But that isn’t the best thing for everyone. If we follow guidelines of social distancing, wearing masks and washing our hands, in-person schooling can work.”

In June, the school district took a survey that asked parents their preferences for classes in the upcoming year. Of the respondents, less than half said they preferred in-person school. More than half said they’d be uncomfortable with their children riding a school bus since social distancing wouldn’t be possible.

Those kinds of responses show that there is no simple solution, said Jonathan Patterson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support during the July school board meeting. Several departments gave reports on where they were with readying teachers and staff for fall classes.

“We’ve added a third day of professional development focused strictly on digital teaching,” he said.

Gwinnett issued a list of promises Monday outlining how this online semester would be different. It was followed by a list of non-specific action steps such as, “students will receive quality instruction on all grade-level standards.”

Clyde Strickland said at Friday’s gathering he wouldn’t hesitate to continue his mentoring and other volunteer efforts in the school district, although he’s in the age group most at-risk for contracting the coronavirus.

“If they consider people in construction and at Kroger as essential personnel, why can’t they consider teachers essential. Make them go to work!” he yelled to cheers and applause.