As schools prepare to welcome students back in one form or another, teachers across the country have expressed serious concerns about the potential health risks a return to campus might bring. And for educators at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, many of those concerns have quickly become reality. COVID-19 has impacted hundreds of teachers and staff in Georgia's largest school district within their first week of in-person planning.
Teachers for Gwinnett County Public Schools returned to their classrooms on July 29 to begin in-person planning for the upcoming school year. However, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some 260 of the school district's employees had been excluded from work by July 30 after they either tested positive for COVID-19 or reported having had contact with someone known to have the virus.
A spokesperson for the school district told the newspaper the exact number of teachers unable to work due to COVID-19 was ever-changing as the quarantine period for some educators ended and new reports of infections or exposure came in. "Given the number of COVID cases in Gwinnett, we would expect to see positives among our employees based on the community spread in our county," Gwinnett County Public School spokesperson Sloan Roach told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Gwinnett County Public Schools — which serves an estimated 180,000 students, according to NBC News — announced on July 20 that it would begin the upcoming school year on Aug. 12 under a completely online learning model. "Out of an abundance of concern for our students, families, and employees, we made a very difficult decision based on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases we are seeing in our county, as well as the concerns that have been expressed by our teachers, parents, and others in the community," Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said in a message to parents.
Under the district's plan, students would learn from home while teachers report in person to their respective schools to deliver digital lessons, collaborate with other educators, and participate in staff development. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gwinnett County Public Schools has reportedly refused to allow teachers to work from home.
But some parents have opposed the district's decision to begin the school year with online learning. Thousands have signed a Change.org petition calling on the school to reinstate an in-person instruction option. Others organized a protest outside the Gwinnett County Public Schools Instructional Support Center in late July, according to The Gwinnett Daily Post.
While Georgia isn't the COVID-19 hotspot that Florida, Texas, or California appear to be, cases in the state have been rising in recent weeks. Data from the Georgia Department of Public Health showed the state has seen nearly 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths. What's more, Gwinnett County is reported by the state's Department of Health to have the second highest confirmed COVID-19 case count out of Georgia's 159 counties. As of Tuesday, there had been at least 18,201 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in Gwinnett County.
On Tuesday, as news of the district's high number of positive or quarantining employees began making headlines nationwide, the school district announced it planned to transition to in-person instruction for those who wanted it "as soon and as safely as possible." An initial outline from the district noted they hoped to bring at least four grades in for in-person instruction on Aug. 26 with all grades returned to in-person instruction on Sep. 9.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.