Having recently completed his 25th opening to a school year, Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks painted himself as an old pro at opening new school years, but he admitted that even with all of his experience, 2020's opening was something new.

How the district pivoted to address the COVID-19 pandemic dominated much of Wilbanks' State of the School System address to the Gwinnett Chamber at the 1818 Club on Wednesday. The superintendent told business leaders that the district has not been too different from businesses in how they've been forced to make operational changes to address the pandemic.

"Without a doubt, the other 24 openings I should say have been very different than this opening," Wilbanks said. "I would think you would say that's been the case with you. You have to do things very differently today that we did this time a year ago.

"But, just because we have to do things different, doesn't lower the expectations of people in wanting good services provided, and we're trying to do the very best we can do to make sure that the children that attend Gwinnett County schools are getting a quality and effective education."

The superintendent, who has led Gwinnett schools since 1996, touched on a number of COVID-19-related topics in his speech, including: the phased-in return of some students for in-person learning; how the district has used digital learning; what impact the pandemic has had on enrollment; and how the school system is providing meals for students who don't return to school.

About 40% of Gwinnett students — or about 70,000 of Gwinnett's roughly 177,394 pupils — have opted to attend Gwinnett schools in person this semester, according to Wilbanks. District officials point out that is a system-wide figure and that the percentages vary from one school to the next, however.

"I wasn't able to make as many visits (to schools) during the opening as I normally would but I think I went to 15 schools since they started coming back in person and what I saw were things that we see on any regular school day in a regular school year, except there's less students," Wilbanks said.

"That less students in the building has really helped us I think with the mitigation of coronavirus (and) the spread that we know could happen if we don't the things that we need to do."

The district has also been purchasing additional Chromebooks to help students who do not have computer access, but whose parents want them doing digital learning. Wilbanks told the Daily Post that "we've probably got 10,000 (Chromebooks) on backorder, maybe more than that." 

Once all of the Chromebooks are in, the district will have a total inventory of about 50,000 computers for students to use for digital learning.

But, Wilbanks conceded digital learning does not work for all students.

"We're finding that parents actually can want one type of instruction for one child and another for another child and we're accommodating," Wilbanks said. "We're able to accommodate that.

"I always say that there's no scientific proof on this, I have no data, it's just my observations over the years (but) I think about 30% of students can do well with digital learning. I think another 30% can do OK. The last 30% struggle with digital learning. They need that in-person learning and we're trying to do all of that that we can. We find that particularly with our special ed students, but other students too. They just work better in school with in-school instructions."

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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