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.”

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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.

(35) comments

Jason Richardson

Gwinnett county schools could make another survey about people who want to go to school and people who want digital. When the results come in, Gwinnett would then make sure that every student that chose in person would social distance and wear masks. The teachers however will work from home. They will use the projectors to do a video call or chat live to monitor the classroom and teach. The administration would also do video calls or use the cameras to monitor the classrooms, but there has to be physical administraters to deal with disciplinary and other stuff like that. The students and in person staff will wear masks, sanitize, and social distance. There should be strict rules so that the students don't joke around. I think this would be the best idea for people who want in person. If anyone has any suggestions, add-ons, or problems with the idea comment. 😃👍

Questtofind

You should volunteer to come in to a school and do just that. Let us all know how that goes!

irishmafia116

!. Cannot find anyone in neighborhood, at work, friends of my daughters or anyone who was asked by GCPS what they thought about the options when school resumes. Did they poll 10 people?

2. How much will the county reimburse the taxpayers for school taxes this year ?

a. No buses ...money saved on gas, tires, maintenance, bus drivers, mechanics, replacement parts and buses

b.A/c, heat, water, cleaning supplies, janitorial staff for schools

c. Front office staff, copy paper, office supplies, etc. not being used or replaced

d. maintenance contracts to repair equipment etc. not being used.

e.Substitute teachers

f. Same things apply to HQ and administrative staff at BOE

g. expenses sending staff to workshops, conferences

h.food, food workers in every cafeteria.

Rough estimate is tens of millions of dollars, yet NOT A WORD about tax abatement or tax refund. You can bet politicians will come out and say hey it's only a small INCREASE this year due to Covid ..isnt that great?

,

Peachie1

Absolutely I 100% agree with the 19% millage rate that's not even in line with the school's is the bigger issue of manipulation. THE USDA will cover the meals as in 7 other states via snap card! Which should of been addressed day 1... Lets talk about the top heavy school system with well over 900 area superintendents and assistant principals as well as principals... GCPS payroll was on 17 million in April when school was out! Parents with special needs kids are upset they should be even more upset that the majority of teachers teaching their kids do not have a special needs certification... We need an adjustment Survey...

MarvinGardens

As to your first item: As a parent I was emailed by the school system for the survey and preference for in-person learning. For the survey, they claim it was emailed to all teachers and parents, so it was a "stakeholders" survey not a parents-only survey. They claim that the choice questionnaire was emailed to all parents, and it probably was since they were planning to offer both options at the time. I was told that parents not answering the questionnaire would default to in-person.

Of course, it was all a waste of time and effort, since public preferences, including those of the school board, were ignored.

Questtofind

Do you really think GCPS is just randomly trying to sabotage county students with this? The school system is not at fault here, as you seem to believe with your bullet points! This is at more serious than you seem to understand.

crobin7028

Here's something else to consider. If digital learning is so great why go back all? We might as well convert everyone to online. We could probably sell 75% of the schools and buses and equipment. Reduce payroll by at least 35%. With all the savings we could buy every student a Chromebook and hot spot and still save a ton of money. We could probably even reduce our taxes.

ldrcoach

I see this pandemic as something I would not want my child exposed to.The best practices that Gwinnett Public Schools could administer does not prevent a child from either getting ill and or bringing it home to family. Over the past months, children have been in sheltered environments.Letting them into a classroom with adults and children, where no one knows who is infected, to me is asking for trouble. Doctors say everyday, they do not know enough about this virus to offer good advice. They treat it as best they can. Also, the after affects are also very compromising to the body. Children can learn virtually. It may take them longer but, they are the ones who have a better handle on technology than most adults.Their lives are more important than being in a classroom/building with a deadly virus!!

Questtofind

More people should feel this way! Unfortunately, there are many who are only thinking of themselves and not these unknowns we are dealing with right now.

Moorelife

I absolutely agree! It’s about what YOU (THE PARENT) instill in the child. I honestly believe this fight is about parents getting rid of their children in the daytime. Point blank period. My son did well, he’s 10 and an honor roll student. Sure there maybe some set backs but this also builds character which hard work, focus and diligence comes into play. I do not want my child at a school of kids who half don’t wash their hands properly because I have to make sure he does and how would a teacher watch every single child and ensure their using healthy tactics?! These parents don’t want to put the work in with their kids and I honestly feel this is the issue!!

Questtofind

AMEN!

Cookien1

How many of those complaining followed CDC or other health department advice all summer. Were your kids at pools. Large parties. This is happening because people didn’t buckle down and because schools don’t have the resources to make things safe

crobin7028

Not true! GCPS has the resources to make things safe. What they don't have are the resources for is 100% digital learning. That is a fact. The staff is not properly trained for 100% digital nor are the students. We could probably do digital learning for a week at a time. I think it's a big ask for staff and student to continue this method especially after missed 2 months of in class instruction. Even GOC which was built to be digital requires students to come to class several days per month.

getoverit

We are no longer stupid sheep to just sitting here waiting to choke down everything the media is handing out. In Gwinnett County the SUPPOSED percentage of cases of covid is only ONE POINT FIVE PERCENT.

Mack

It was proven that Digital Learning does not work. There are too many distractions in this process. Children cannot learn as much or question the Digital Format. If 60% are wanting in school classes why is the majority ignored? it goes without saying that we will not get a school tax break due to lower costs of the education system being in a partial shut down. Where will the savings be spent is another question that needs to be answered, but you will never get one.

getoverit

TIME FOR THE ACTUAL VOICE OF THE PEOPLE, NOT A FEW!!!!!!!!!!!

Peachie1

Absolutely time for accountability this school system wastes a lot of tax dollars as well as title one funding going toward administration when a supposed to be going towards title 1 support.. 180ish students for the past 10 yrs, is that even Accurate the growth that Gwinnett County has had in the past 10 years .. Time 4 a Nation call for a New Superintendent that's not making $645000 a year for low performing schools and 68 title 1 schools

getoverit

STOP throwing, over exaggerated, pumped up statistics at us. WE ARE NOT STUPID or blind anymore! ENOUGH of you running/ruining our lives.

Retirement2019

Very nice to see parents finally stepping up. This was the only option for parents to take. Their are far too many fear mongers who are refusing to see the negatives from keeping children out of the classroom. Power to these parents for defending their kids and their educational future.

natecollins999

Teachers don't deserve to put their lives on the line to teach your kids. Who is going to pay for their medical bills? What happens if they die? It's easy for you to stand outside with a mask on and demand these things when its not your life at risk. This is a global pandemic and sacrifices are going to be made one way or another.

Questtofind

Thank you for being the only one to address this very important piece. Putting teachers and staff at risk and not being able to control the numbers interacting in person is something these folks have failed to even consider or seem to care about. When your teachers get sick, everyone is affected and have to take precautions once again.

crobin7028

Just so you know there have been millions of people working safely since the beginning of COVID. Why you think teachers can't do it is beyond comprehension.

Questtofind

There are too many people at risk here. Just stop your fighting and get a grip on reality-this could be a domino effect as more are vulnerable.

Questtofind

Why you think teachers should do it is beyond comprehension!

Peachie1

By chance are you an educator can you imagine teachers wearing mask for 8 hours A-day in an overpopulated school system? Gwinnett was not ready for the global pandemic after Spending our tax money marketing that they are a Digital friendly school system when this could not be further from the truth! Is not prepared for the global pandemic virtual learning... Virtual learning has been going on for years however when that has a problem because their priority or not educating kids it is prisoning the schools!! It Is Now National News! Hello 19% millage and over paid CEO!

Moorelife

CHILDREN arent health conscious my dear!! They wipe snot on their hands, touch everything in site and don’t even cover their mouths when they coffee... what type of safety is truly available for kids if we as parents aren’t watching them ourselves?! A teacher who also has a family to maintain safety with and then come to work with 20 plus kids spreading germs, even before the pandemic kids swapped and spread germs at school. So what are we truly fighting for babysitters or education?

Retirement2019

Check the CDC site for projected mortality rate, go ahead if facts and truth are more important than your Hysteria. I'll help out, mortality rate is under 0.25%. Again anyone can go see the facts. Leave your emotions at home.

crobin7028

Facts only matter if they fit their narrative. I'll say it again millions of people working safe. Teachers should be able to figure it out. Let's see what happens when the PE teachers, school nurses, janitorial and cafeteria staffs, librarians and bus drivers start getting furloughs. There's no need to be paying for these positions right now. At least not all of them.

MarvinGardens

No, CDC best estimate of infection mortality is 0.65%, with a range from 0.5% to 0.8%. They were reporting a lower number but they updated it recently.

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/planning-scenarios.html

Peachie1

Absolutely!! Not sure if they saw the health kill workers that got Sick!! Their employers did not give a hoot! We are in the middle of a global pandemic! Enough Said..

Moorelife

Exactly!!

crobin7028

Here’s what I’m thinking & I’m curious what others think of my solution. What if we didn’t let our kids participate in online classes. Just say no thanks. My kids can’t learn this way and I don’t have the resources or the time to do this. So my kids will just wait until we return to regular school before we participate in school again. I wonder what would happen if 60% of us took that position. Would they send the police to our house because aren’t in school. I’m not sure if anyone has thought about this. The is just assuming we will comply. What if we don’t? I’m will to take a stand here because I think this is a complete waste of time.

natecollins999

Fine, don't comply. Your kid will just be losing out on an education because of your stubbornness.

Questtofind

My thoughts exactly!

MarvinGardens

Civil disobedience can certainly work if you can rally enough others to your cause. But as with other causes, the State can and may push back against you. No, they would not prosecute that many parents for truancy. The most likely negative response would be that they tell you "OK, your kid will be held back a year," and then they otherwise ignore you. Wilbanks ignored 60% of parents, and he ignored the vote of an elected board. So why wouldn't he just ignore protests too?

For that reason, one of your top demands should be that Wilbanks is fired. He went against the plan that had been endorsed by the school board on multiple occasions. If the school board members flip against you, they can be voted out.

A better strategy might be to couple your truancy protests with massive in-person protests both at the district headquarters in Suwanee and in downtown Lawrenceville. Fill up the streets and parking lots with people, peaceably assembled. Inconvenience them and make it so you can't be ignored. If they tell you to disperse, inform them that you are exercising your First Amendment rights, and remain there peacefully disobeying their request. They can push back by arresting you, but if there are enough of you, you'll clog the jails and courts, in turn making things difficult for them.

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