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Gwinnett teachers fear working at school poses health risk

Gwinnett County Public School educator Cherilyn Nunn holds up a sign during a rally and march created by the Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice in front of the Gwinnett County Public School Board building in Suwanee on July 20. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gwinnett County Public School educator Cherilyn Nunn holds up a sign during a rally and march created by the Gwinnett Educators for Equity and Justice in front of the Gwinnett County Public School Board building in Suwanee on July 20. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Ashley Newman, a fifth grade teacher and the mother of a 4-year-old, is feeling pressured to choose between her career and taking care of her daughter. That’s because Gwinnett County Public Schools is mandating teachers return to classrooms to work, despite adopting an online-only back-to-school plan.

In some districts, teachers need permission to work from their classrooms instead of working from home. In others, they have the option to work remotely or at school. And a few districts, such as Gwinnett, are requiring teachers to work on school sites.

“I’ve been a teacher for six years — all at Gwinnett schools — and I’ve loved every moment,” Newman said. “I don’t want to leave the profession and I don’t want to teach anywhere else.”

Newman is among hundreds of Gwinnett teachers who have a signed a petition saying they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct online classes at school because of childcare or health concerns. Her husband is a firefighter and an essential worker. Her day care already has more children than Newman is comfortable with.

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The district said it considered those issues when it devised its policy.

“We are aware of the concerns of some of our teachers, and there are measures in place to address them,” said spokesman Bernard Watson. “If an educator has a concern, they should talk to their principal first and then to human resources.”

Many area school districts pushed back start dates for reopening due to soaring cases of the coronavirus. Cases have now topped 175,000 in the state, with more than 3,500 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Tanisha Banks, a special education teacher, is concerned about working from school because she and her fourth-grade daughter both have underlying medical conditions that classify them as medically fragile.

“I was at the teacher protest when the district announced we’d be teaching online-only,” she said. “I had already signed my daughter up for distance learning and hoped that I’d be one of the virtual teachers.”

She was disappointed to learn Gwinnett is requiring teachers to report to school to teach virtual classes. She hasn’t decided what she’ll do, but she’s praying the district will reverse that decision before school starts.

“If you don’t live with this, you might not understand,” she Banks, who is also a candidate for the Gwinnett Board of Education District 3 seat.

Options presented to teachers with health concerns don’t include a work-from-home scenario. They can speak to their principal about finding an alternative work space at the school. They can also use accrued sick time, leave or absence or the federally mandated Family Medical Leave Act.

Those with day care issues can apply for leave at two-thirds pay under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act. If the employee has school-aged kids, those children may go to school with the parent, according to the district. But many teachers say that plan isn’t practical.

Some teachers have taken early retirement or quit their jobs. To date, Gwinnett has 12,286 employees classified as teachers. Sixty-four have requested to be released from their contracts and 61 have been terminated since June 1, according to district data.

One elementary teacher said she opted to retire shortly after the district announced all teachers must work at schools. The teacher, was one of nearly a dozen interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was given anonymity to keep medical information private.

“I’m close enough to retirement that I didn’t want to take the risk,” she said. “I wanted to wait two more years, but I have health issues and I care for a family member who has several factors that could make contracting the coronavirus a death sentence. Given those choices, I couldn’t do anything else.”

Newman was so adamant that the school leaders listen to their issues, she posted a petition on change.org.

“We want to formally request that all teachers in Gwinnett County Public Schools have the option to work from the building or from home until in-school instruction resumes to support their families,” she wrote. “We are taking the precaution for children ages 5-21, and it needs to be consistent for teachers of children ages 4 and under, as well as our teachers who are at higher risk with pre-existing conditions, teachers caring for those with pre-existing conditions, and teachers with children with special needs.”

School officials said they are taking all necessary precautions to ensure everyone’s safety.

“Our custodial staff is well trained on the thorough cleaning and disinfecting practices required by the CDC and county health officials,” said Watson. “These are the same practices and procedures that we used in previous pandemics and other outbreaks in our schools.