Gwinnett schools to bring some students back to classrooms next week

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, July 20. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

After nearly two weeks of online-only classes, the Gwinnett County School District will begin welcoming students back into classrooms next week — a move drawing both criticism and praise.

Under a phased plan, some students will begin returning to school to Wednesday. At a Board of Education meeting Thursday, many teachers voiced objections to in-person classes while Gwinnett County still has a high COVID-19 case rate. They say it isn’t safe or healthy for them —or their students.

“We can admit that digital learning is not an ideal learning environment,” Everton Blair, the only board member to voice opposition to the reopening plan, said at the meeting. “But even if half of [students] show up, it’s impossible for them to social distance on buses and social distance in the classroom.”

Multiple parents pleaded with the board to keep the in-person option. Holly Terrei, the mother of an autistic sixth grader, said her son had “substantially” regressed since switching to online learning in March.

“There’s no level of care or instruction a teacher behind a screen can provide to intercept what is happening or restore what has been lost,” Terrei said. “Face-to-face instruction must happen for our students.”

Putting students back in classrooms is particularly fraught in Georgia, which has the fifth highest case rate in the country and positivity rates — the proportion of those tested for COVID-19 who are found to have the disease — hovering around 10%. New York City, the hardest hit in the early months of the pandemic, is planning to have modified in-person instruction this fall, but has a positivity rate under 1%.

Linda Waddell, a Gwinnett teacher for nearly 30 years who retired in May, said at that beginning in-person learning while the county still has a positivity rate of 9.3% isn’t sensible.

“Students need to have stability in order to succeed in their education,“ she told the board. “We have seen other Georgia schools open. They open schools one week, they close the next due to COVID-19.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools, which has more than 180,000 students, first announced a plan allowing families to choose between virtual or in-person learning in June, then an all-virtual plan in July, when Gwinnett’s COVID-19 case numbers were at their peak.

On Aug. 4, Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks announced the current plan, allowing kindergartners; students in grades 1, 6 and 9; and special education students to return on Aug. 26 if their parents opted to do so. Additional grades will be phased in until Sept. 9 for those who’ve opted for in-person learning.

“This is not a decision that can be made in a vacuum of COVID. There are so many other factors that need to be considered,” said Steve Knudsen, one of four Board of Education members supporting the plan. “I believe we have come up with a plan that has the most choice for the most families.”

The district will be almost evenly split between the two options, with 49% of students expected to attend in-person and 51% to remain online for the rest of the semester. Teachers have had to teach from their classrooms since the resumption of classes Aug. 12. Ahead of the school year, 260 teachers and district employees either tested positive for COVID-19 or had to be quarantined due to likely exposure.

Teachers who contract or are possibly exposed to the coronavirus will have the option to teach remotely, but those who are afraid of getting sick will not, district officials said Thursday.

Dr. Audrey Arona, health director for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Department, told the board of education Thursday that while there is a risk of contracting COVID-19 in schools, precautions including masks, which the district requires, are being taken.

“We need to rightsize our fear about COVID,” she said. “We can’t all stay home and shelter in place forever, and we don’t need to.”

Nearly 50,000 Gwinnett County Public Schools students have received Chromebooks from the district to help them participate in remote learning. The school board approved the purchase of more than 19,000 more on Thursday night at a cost of $5 million.

Online instruction has faced technical issues in its first dew days, with software repeatedly crashing and both students and teachers sometimes facing issues accessing virtual classes.

“We know exactly what the root cause was and we have made adjustments to make sure it is no longer the case,” said Frank Elmore, chief information officer.

Teachers have also reported “Zoom bombing,” incidents where students may have given a class code to a friend who then jumps into the class uninvited and causes disruptions.

But virtual learning is continuing to improve, said Jack Lin, a middle school math teacher.

“Digital teaching is working and we are getting better every day,” Lin said. “Every day I’m giving more feedback than I ever could have imagined. Student work is easier to scaffold and students are learning.”

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