Brookwood school cluster parent Marisa Jackson had already prepared herself for the possibility of Gwinnett County Public Schools switching to an online-only start to the school year before news of the switch was announced Monday.
Jackson, who is the parent of a middle school student, had already created a Change.org petition — which was pushing 5,000 signatures Monday — to show support for in-person learning. She had also created a Facebook group to act as a gathering point for other parents, as well as educators, who supported an in-person start to the school year.
This was all while several other school districts in metro Atlanta were quickly changing to online-only school year starts last week and pressure was mounting on Gwinnett officials to follow suite.
“I was expecting (the switch),” Jackson said. “I knew there was a lot of pressure, which is why I started the petition and the Facebook group before the decision was made, so I was not surprised.”
A couple hundred parents and students gathered outside the Gwinnett County Public Schools Instructional Support Center on Friday morning for a protest that Jackson and other parents had a hand in pulling together. Participants called on district leaders to re-instate in-person instruction as an option for students this fall.
“We cannot ignore all of the needs that digital learning does not meet,” Jackson said. “We’ve never tried this with an entire generation, but we do know what child development entails and we know what’s going to be lacking if our kids miss six, seven, eight months of school.”
Prior to the announcement at the beginning of the week that Gwinnett would do online learning only because of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, the district had planned to do a hybrid setup where some students would be taught in person while others would attend school online. It all depended on which choice parents made.
Parents at the protest on Friday said they felt as if their choice on the matter had been taken away from them by district officials.
“Give us our choice back,” said Kelly Willyard, who has twins at Riverside Elementary School. “It’s our children, our taxes, our choice and we know what’s best for our children ...
“We support the other people that want the digital learning and we also support the teachers. We are not a divisive group. We are in support of the choices people have chosen, and we’re not there to take their choice away.”
Participants in the protest, which included some teachers as well as parents, held signs with statements such as “Open My School,” Our Kids, Our Choice,” “Kids Need to Be In School,” and “Stop The Fear.”
They also chanted slogans such as “Hear our voice, we want choice.”
Like Jackson, Sheri Mitchell, who has a child at Riverside Elementary School and another at North Gwinnett Middle School, said she and Willyard began making plans to protest online-only instruction before the district announced it would go in that direction.
Mitchell and Willyard were also co-organizers of the protest.
“Friday (July 17), we said ‘if there’s three of us, we’re just going to picket if these schools don’t give us a choice,’ “ Mitchell said. “And then Monday, when the decision came down, we were really upset so we were gonna meet at our clubhouse and then we found out there was a group (Supporting GCPS in-person learning) online, so we joined and said ‘We’re going to be have this (at the clubhouse to discuss the protest).’
“We had 25 people at our club house in like four hours — people who were concerned about it.”
Willyard said she also began texting people after the announcement came down from the district Monday morning as well, and word about the protest quickly spread.
“The concern is if they don’t start (in-person Aug. 12), they’ll keep pushing it back,” Mitchell said.
Willyard added, “In March, they said they’re shut down for a week, then it was two weeks. Then it was ‘We’ll go back after Easter,’ and then Easter came and then it was like two more weeks. And, then they said maybe we’ll go back before the end of school, and then they said ‘No, we’re not going back to school.’ It has caused a lot of anxiety amongst families and children.
“Then there was sort of this promise that we’d get back to school in the fall, and now here we are and we’ve been given a choice and then it got taken away.”
Whether students should return to school in-person this fall has been a hotly debated topic, not just in Gwinnett, but across Georgia and the rest of the nation. President Donald Trump has pushed for an in-person start to the school year, a stance Gov. Brian Kemp has also taken.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supported reopening schools in new guidelines issued this week. The federal agency insisted children are less likely than adults to get COVID-19 or spread it.
The catch is the CDC also said school districts in areas where there is uncontrolled spreading of the disease should close schools.
Gwinnett County had been leading the state among all Georgia counties in terms of total cases for several weeks, but dropped behind Fulton County on Wednesday. Both counties had see large numbers of new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, but Fulton’s new case numbers have been higher than Gwinnett’s.
As of Friday, Gwinnett had seen a total of 14,801 cases and 213 deaths since March. The county has had the third highest number of COVID-19-related deaths in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments District Health Director Dr. Audrey Arona — who has repeatedly said there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in Gwinnett — declined to pick a side in the debate.
“I don’t support either way,” Arona said. “Thankfully, I am not one involved in making that decision, but what I do is provide guidance to them. I do believe if there is in-person school, that we can do it safely, but I support the school systems in whatever they decide.”
In a statement, Gwinnett County Public Schools officials did not rule out the possibility of eventually returning to school in person, but they did not say when that could happen.
“When Gwinnett County Public Schools announced it would start the year on Aug. 12 digitally, it also shared that the goal was to return to in-person instruction when that became possible,” district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said. “We have developed solid plans for both digital instruction and how to move seamlessly to in-person instruction at the appropriate time.
“We understand the frustration of the parents and students here today. Certainly our preference is to start the school year at school with students and teachers together in classrooms as there is nothing better than face-to-face instruction. However, that transition must be done in a strategic and safe manner.”