Gwinnett County Public Schools’ spring semester appears to be set to begin as scheduled — with some students learning in person and others learning digitally — on Thursday, despite calls from some members of the county’s school board to delay in-person instruction for a few days.
Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the board requested Monday’s called meeting to discuss the spring semester calendar.
The request to delay the start of school was a key topic of debate among board members. School board members Karen Watkins and Tarece Johnson asked the board to delay in-person instruction until Jan. 19 and have all of the district’s students learning digitally for the first seven school days, starting Thursday.
“I think we have an opportunity here to talk about the safety of the return to school,” said Watkins, whose own children participate in in-school instruction in the district this year.
Wilbanks said, however, that he disagreed with changing the plans for starting the semester, and there was no vote by the board on whether to change the plans.
In a presentation the board, Associate Superintendent for School improvement and Operations Steve Flynt said a survey of all GCPS parents late in the fall semester showed 44.5% of them preferred their kids do digital learning in the spring semester. That is down from 54% in the fall semester.
“I see no need to change the schedule and do not want to change the schedule because of what’s already set up and I think we’re prepared to do that,” Wilbanks said. “If we see there are issues that are beyond our control with the proper protocols that are in place now, we’ll look at that.”
Watkins stressed after the meeting that supporters of the all-digital start are not trying to have the entire semester be all-digital. They only want the beginning to be that way because of concerns about COVID-19.
School board member Everton Blair was not at the meeting, but Johnson said he had emailed the entire board and expressed his support for an all-digital start to the school year.
“We have three members of the board, the majority of the board here, (who) has said we would like to go 100% digital until Jan. 19 and establish a task force to figure out ways to close the gap and meet the needs of our students,” Johnson said. “And, of course we know, and we all can agree, that we want our students to be in school and our teachers to be in school in person.
“That’s the end goal, but right now is not the time because we are in the height of this pandemic.”
Although board members asserted this was not a political issue, they did appear to be split along party lines about which way to go.
After the meeting, Watkins said she, Johnson and Blair were not trying to tell Wilbanks how to run the operations of the school system, but rather trying to bring forth concerns they have heard from constituents and serve in an “oversight and accountability” role. Watkins said there were different viewpoints in the issue about the issue, however.
“I have to be here to champion their voice, but there are two voices out there, there are a multiple voices out there,” Watkins said. “But the thing is, I am learning there is a lot of common ground.”
The three board members who publicly called for an all-digital start are Democrats. The board members who are at least not publicly supporting an all-digital start to the semester are Republicans.
As of Monday afternoon, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported Gwinnett’s two-week COVID-19 incidence rate was 819 cases for every 100,000 residents. That amounts to a total of 7,957 new cases reported over the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Day in the county.
Just one week earlier, on Dec. 28, the county’s two-week incidence rate was 696 new cases for every 100,000 residents.
As of Monday, Gwinnett’s overall case total, reflecting all cases reported since March, is 53,884 cases, which is the highest case total in Georgia. There have been 565 confirmed deaths and 39 probable deaths, and 3,851 hospitalizations since the spring of 2020.
Some parents who attended the meeting said they were glad it appeared the district would continue with its plans for the spring semester without any changes.
“The solution should never, to any of these issues, be our children not going to school,” said Holly Terei, who has four kids in Gwinnett schools, including two special education students. “That should be completely off the table. Hire more subs, get more PPE, find more funding, do whatever you’ve got to do, but the solution should never be, ‘Let’s just close the schools, let’s just do digital, let’s just delay the start.’ “