As we enter the month of August, parents, students and teachers in the state of Georgia are afraid. Nearly 300 school employees in Gwinnett County have been quarantined only a day after Gwinnett County Public Schools forced teachers to report for in-person pre-planning sessions.
Meanwhile, Barrow County Schools are starting the year virtually after over 90 staff members had to quarantine “due to a confirmed case of COVID-19, a suspected case or direct contact with a confirmed case” during their pre-planning, and two elementary schools that have started in-person classes — one in Bartow County and one in Cherokee County — have confirmed cases, with the latter requiring an entire class be quarantined.
This fear has precedent. Understandably, many of us feel like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Online options can be financed by some counties, but not all, and they do not have the traditional social benefits or depth of hands-on learning as in-person instruction. However, attending in-person classes in enclosed spaces could be a death sentence for some, and leave others who catch the virus with long term health effects.
The innate hypocrisy of school administrators holding Zoom meetings to discuss whether or not schools should reopen should tell us that schools do not need to open just yet, a sentiment shared by hundreds of Gwinnett County teachers. If our school boards are unwilling to risk testing a scaled-down version of the measures they’re planning for schools this fall, then no faith can be put in those methods on any school-wide scale. Districts such as Clarke County schools are making the safe choice by starting online, and that mindset needs to continue into the school year for all districts in the state.
According to Derrick Brown, husband to a teacher and father to a student in Gwinnett County, one problem is the focus on politics rather than on practical solutions. Since early July, Brown has been in contact with members of the Gwinnett County Public Schools Board of Education. As an IT manager in systems development, Brown’s focus has been on external and internal infrastructure — for instance, in one online meeting, the board recognized school filtration systems were not as strong as medical grade systems, as well as the county’s financial inability to replace filtration systems in multiple schools.
As a parent, Brown has been increasingly worried about his daughter’s mental health since March.
“My child became very upset,” Brown said. “She wanted to see her friends so bad she had outbursts … That was challenging, but she got over it.”
He also worries for his wife, who is returning to teaching this year, calling her “passionate, committed to the job.”
“However, she does not want to compromise the safety of her students, her fellow teachers, herself or her child,” Brown said. “Teachers are not slaves … it is not their job to walk straight into danger, especially when it can be avoided.”
Budget cuts earlier in the year and the president’s threats to further cut funding for schools that do not reopen are making the situation worse for teachers and students alike; without proper funding from the federal government, schools will have a harder time keeping staff, students and teachers safe.
No matter where people fall on the political, ideological or moral spectrum of school reopenings, one through line remains consistent: maintaining the health and well-being of the children. While teachers and students alike may prefer in-person instruction, the weight of the risk is too great.
“People can be and are resilient; we adapt to change,” said Brown. “The money’s there. And if it’s not, operate at a deficit for the time being, because it’s an investment in your children and your family.”