Dear Gwinnett County Board of Education:
We the people of Gwinnett, the students, parents, teachers, nurses, and community stakeholders call upon the Gwinnett County Board of Education to revise their plans for the 2020-2021 school year. The Gwinnett County School Board are duly elected officials, sworn to uphold the values and the best interest of the community it serves. As such, School Board members are not employees of the School System, but are vehicles for the community’s voices to be heard, sworn to “meet the needs and expectations of community members effectively and efficiently by providing a safe and secure learning environment, governing the district fairly and openly and seeking engagement of the many stakeholders that are served within the community.” These words taken from the 2016 GCPS Core Beliefs and Commitments esteems the values the School Board members are elected into office to uphold as well as the expectations the community stakeholders have for said School Board to exhibit in good conscious.
On June 25, GCPS announced its plans to open schools for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, giving parents a choice between in-person instruction, along with an option for digital learning with family responses due by July 10th. The announcement coincided with official reports of a rapid increase of new COVID-19 infections in Gwinnett County, statewide and nationwide. Local and national news outlets are suggesting this could be the beginning of another deadlier spike in transmissions that could potentially overwhelm our still inadequate ability to protect our families and community from the pandemic.
We the community members and stakeholders of Gwinnett are concerned with several aspects of the GCPS plans to open schools for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year. The first area of concern is how the plan came into being. The GCPS website states that the school system serves over 180,324 students in the county, with the demographics being 32% African American, 32% Hispanic/Latino, 21% Caucasian, 11% Asian/Pacific Islander and 4% multiracial. The Fall survey results showed a student response rate of approximately 12,649 students which is less than 7.1% out of 180,324 students, with most of the response coming from Brookwood cluster (1,156 responses), Mill Creek cluster (1,093 responses), North Gwinnett cluster (1,114 responses) and Mountain View cluster (916 responses) totaling 4,279 student responses from the above four clusters. The above clusters represent students of a specific demographic and region that does not account for the majority of the student body.
The number of responses received from the staff totaled 15,508, in which 7,594 staff members were either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with returning for in-school instruction in August and 8,739 stated they would prefer 100% digital platform or some sort of hybrid digital learning (GCPS employs 23,300 staff).
The survey for English speaking parents received a total of 42,886 responses, where 23,256 parents were either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with returning for in-school instruction in August and 24,311 stated they would prefer 100% digital platform or some sort of hybrid digital learning.
The survey for Spanish speaking parents received a total of 2,761 responses, where 1,584 parents responded that they’d prefer 100% digital platform or some sort of hybrid digital learning. The survey for community members received a total of 2,971 responses, where 1,813 community members responded that they’d prefer 100% digital platform or some sort of hybrid digital learning for the students and staff of Gwinnett County. The above survey results show less than 15% community and vested stakeholder response rate. The survey method of delivery, as well as who within the community received the survey shows that the whole community was not invited to take part in the survey. For example, the survey shows only 2,761 Spanish speaking parents were invited/responded to the survey. This number does not reflect 32% of the student body who are Hispanic/Latino. The voice of the community was not considered or truly heard in consideration for re-opening schools this upcoming Fall 2020 based on the survey results.
A petition was created that addressed the concerns of community members, it gained over 2,000 signatures from various members within 72 hours. The community demands the following based on the petition (attached/included):
1. GCPS should provide various mediums and ample opportunities for significant and meaningful community input. The surveys that were sent out in June were grossly inadequate and did not allow any opportunities for full participation in crafting the questions or responses.
2. The community needs to be involved in developing a plan that provides more flexibility for students, parents, and teachers.
3. Any proposal should meet all of the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools-including the provision of Personal Protective Equipment and social distancing guidelines to be implemented on the bus and in the schools.
4. Masks should be required for students, teachers, and staff. Those who are medically fragile should not be forced to return on site, be staff, teacher or student.
5. The School Board needs to be able to meet the needs of the community of which Gwinnett County is the 4th most diverse county in the nation with students from over 181 countries who speak 100 different languages, all with unique community needs. These needs should be meet by expanding wrap around services and the hiring of additional counselors and social workers.
6. GCPS should address concerns with inequalities regarding technology and access to the eClass virtual learning platform. All students will need to have laptops and access to Wi-Fi for instruction.
7. Virtual workshops should be provided to help parents and students to better navigate digital learning-including comprehensive programs for ESOL students and other students with special needs.
8. GCPS should ensure that each school has a registered school nurse (PRN-RN/LPN) on site and must have a comprehensive plan in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak on campus. This plan must provide support for parents, students, and staff affected by an outbreak and should include detailed procedures for a safe return to school.
9. During the May school board meeting, a GCPS pandemic task force was repeatedly mentioned. However, the public has not been provided a list of its members and their qualifications. Furthermore, all minutes of this task force’s meetings should be made available online within 72 hours. As a best practice, GCPS should provide better transparency with regard to all board meetings, partnerships, and task forces.
10. The 2020-2021 school year start date should be moved to a date after Labor Day in order to allow for adequate time to address all requirements listed above.
Some of the questions and concerns from community members include:
- How will social distancing be implemented on the bus and in the classrooms? How will the overcrowded classes be handled?
- Who will be responsible to enforce the wearing of mask or social distancing? What kind of disciplinary actions will be placed and who will be held accountable if someone does not wear PPE or social distance?
- How will time off be handled if a teacher/staff member gets infected while at school with COVID? Do they use time off or sick time? What if they don’t have enough sick hours to cover their 2-weeks?
- There’s a shortage of substitutes in the county, how will subs be acquired if teachers start getting sick? Who will pay for the subs to fill a class?
- Please provide a clear example of what the digital platform will look like for the Fall 2020 school year. Will it be the same as Spring 2020? Will the students have to log in at a certain time or will they be streaming a teacher in a classroom interacting with students in person?
- Will teachers be provided with separate time within school hours to meet digital demands of the online only students? How will this affect teacher evaluations/student assessments for the school year? Are teachers expected to do both digital and in-person simultaneously?
- How will the special education programs work (speech, OT, PT, reading/math recovery, etc) these are generally administered in small groups/spaces and require close interaction?
- Will Covid-19 testing be conducted onsite at schools if someone (student/teacher/staff) tests positive? How will contact tracing happen? Will the whole class be quarantined at the same time? Who will be liable legally for the spread of illness that starts in the schools?
- What are some of the steps GCPS has taken to keep the schools clean and safe? Has a vigorous cleaning regiment been adopted with the addition of cleaning supplies for the classrooms? Will parents be expected to purchase wipes and cleaning supplies to supplement the teachers supply?
We the people of Gwinnett kindly ask that the above items be addressed immediately as well as those items mentioned in the letter dated July 6, 2020 by Everton Blair, re: School Reopening in Covid-19 (attached) as well as the letter sent by House Representative, Dr. Jasmine Clark to GCPS & school board members (attached). As stakeholders and members of the community, we vow to hold the school board and ultimately the superintendent of the school system accountable for the safety of our students, teachers, staff and community. We require the development of a plan that saves lives, not one that will jeopardize the lives of countless community members and further burden our burgeoning hospital system.
Taken from the Gwinnett County Board of Education Core Beliefs and Commitments page, states that Gwinnett County Board of Education “derives the core beliefs and commitments for public education from the foundational principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”. “America’s public schools exist to undergird and advance these principles…”
Be of good conscious and provide a plan as the above Core Beliefs and Commitments attest each Board member should uphold.
In solidarity with the people of Gwinnett,
Karen Watkins, Board of Education Candidate District 1
Tanisha Banks, Board of Education Candidate District 3
Tarece Johnson, Board of Education Candidate District 5