After complaints, Gwinnett schools to amend back-to-work plan

Berkmar High School assistant principal Gypsy Hernandez picks up paperwork and a computer to give to a student who came to the school April 7. Although administrators have been back working at schools for weeks, a summons for teachers and other staff to return to on-site learning met with public outcry. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gwinnett County Public Schools is taking another look at its directive that teachers and other staffers return to work in school buildings.

Just as Gov. Brian Kemp declared last week the shelter-in-place mandate had been lifted for all but the medically fragile, leadership at the largest school district in the state had sent a memo to principals with a timeline for staff and teachers to return to on-site duties.

Almost immediately, there was a backlash.

Journalists at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were bombarded with messages via phone, text and social media decrying the summons back to school buildings.

Gwinnett indicated that it will make changes to the new rules that were set to go into effect Wednesday.

“On Friday, May 1, Gwinnett County Public Schools released its plan to return employees to work sites. As has been shared, the district does need to close out the school year and some of that work does have to take place on-site. That said, we have received feedback from teachers and others who shared concerns about returning to the work site at this time,” a district memo Tuesday said. “That feedback has led district leaders to consider adjustments to the return-to-work site plan.”

District spokeswoman Sloan Roach said in a written statement Tuesday, “Staff members are reviewing possible changes that would allow the district to successfully close out the school year while being responsive to employees’ concerns. It is anticipated that a revised plan will be announced tomorrow.”

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Those affected aren’t yet doing their happy dance, but some agreed to talk to The AJC on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared job retaliation.

“I guess enough people complained,” posted one teacher on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page. “Now let’s hope they make the right decision and keep people at home!”

An online petition insisting that Gwinnett leadership reverse the back-to-school order had garnered more than 2,000 signatures by late Tuesday afternoon.

“I LOVE my job but I also feel strongly that it is still too early to return to work given that the state just re-opened and there is talk of a second wave/spike. Please keep us safe,” posted another teacher.

Other metro school districts contacted by The AJC said they have no plans to order teachers back to on-site instruction.

“We believe the flexibility for employees to work remotely should be as high as is the accountability to continue to do their jobs well,” said a spokesperson for Cobb County schools. “In the case of our teachers, they continue to teach remotely.”

Similarly, Fulton County officials said all end-of-school planning was done with the health and safety of students, teachers, staff and community as the first priority.

“At this point, Fulton County teachers are not returning to schools for teaching in classrooms. We will continue with remote learning through May 22,” said spokesman Brian Noyes. “School staff will be coming in at scheduled times to clear out their personal belongings as we dismiss for the summer. The logistics/schedule for such are in consideration of the health guidance for gathering, cleaning, etc. from the CDC and state public health officials. In addition, all are provided the necessary face covering (masks) and also gloves if needed.”

Teachers organizations are cautiously optimistic that Wednesday’s decision will allow Gwinnett staff to work remotely.

“We are encouraged by Gwinnett County Public Schools’ announcement today of an anticipated revision to their controversial plan for returning employees to on-site work,” said Professional Association of Georgia Educators Executive Director Craig Harper. “PAGE has been in close contact with GCPS administration on this issue – conveying employee concerns to the superintendent and urging the district to amend the policy to prioritize the health and well-being of educators and school personnel. State School Superintendent Richard Woods and school leaders throughout Georgia have consistently recommended compassion over compliance in these unprecedented times.”

Verdallia Turner, president of Georgia Federation of Teachers, agreed.

“There’s still so much unknown about COVID-19 and it’s best to err on the side of concern for employee welfare than government compliance,” she said.

Although the Gwinnett County Board of Education members didn’t vote on the plans to return teachers and personnel to work on site, board chairwoman Louise Radloff said she’s confident the methodology was sound.

“I read the petition and re-read the memo to staff,” she said. “It looks like provisions are made for health, safety, sanitation and for those whose health or other responsibilities would keep them from returning to the schools.”

But teachers and others said it isn’t fair to make anyone choose between their lives and their livelihood.

“These are strange times,” one teacher told The AJC. “I’ve found out that people I know who were healthy one day are dead in a week or two. I’m not willing to take that kind of risk — even for my students whom I love dearly.”

“I never heard anything about hiring more custodians — they are the real heroes,” Beth Remmes, a Gwinnett reader posted. “What if many of them are eligible for the (federally-funded leave available to some during the pandemic) — then there are no custodians to sanitize everything!”

Jillian Whately, a former Gwinnett County schools employee who teaches psychology and leadership at Georgia State University said this is a tough time to be a decision-maker.

“Even those who might not be physically at risk, you may not be prepared psychologically or emotionally to come back to on-site working,” she said. “You can’t ask educators to do the best by their students if they are worried about taking care of themselves.”

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