Teachers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, staged a socially distant protest Thursday of the district’s plan for students to return to school as hundreds of district employees have tested positive for Covid-19 or are in quarantine because of potential exposure.
The teachers and their families gathered – in their cars – at the Gwinnett County Public Schools district office in Suwanee, honking horns and displaying signs to express their displeasure with the district’s recent decision to phase in face-to-face instruction. It was the second day of protest.
The school year has not yet started in Gwinnett County, but already 263 school staff either tested positive for Covid-19 or are in quarantine.
There have been 28 confirmed and 67 suspected cases of COVID-19 among employees of Gwinnett County Public Schools as of Wednesday, according to Sloan Roach, the executive director of communication and media relations.
The district identified 168 close contacts of those people, resulting in a total of 263 employees impacted by either a positive test result or quarantine.
The district is set to reopen with online learning on August 12, but Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks announced Tuesday that students will be returning to classrooms in phases beginning August 26. All teachers are expected to prepare and teach classes from school buildings, even for virtual learning.
“It hit us with a shock,” teacher Aireane Montgomery told CNN’s Jim Sciitto on Friday morning. “It has been a catastrophe.”
Some teachers have underlying health conditions, she said, and instructors are concerned about their own health, as well as students and staff members.
Schools throughout the district are proceeding differently, which is “unnerving,” Montgomery said. “It’s being made on politics. There’s no way that this could be made due to scientific research.”
Gwinnett County school officials defended the decision.
“In making our plans, we have tried to balance the information about COVID cases in Gwinnett with the concerns of parents who fear for their children’s educational progress, as well as their own employment, and need for us to bring their children back to school,” Roach said.
She added that many of the teachers and staff have understandable concerns about returning to in-person instruction, but the district is committed to doing what it believes is best for students in terms of their health, safety, and education. “Our district is having to make difficult decisions that we know will not be popular with everyone,” Roach said.
Roach compared teachers to essential workers. “Just as other essential workers serve the community, our school district staff members serve the children and families of this community,” she said.
While many teachers are upset about going back to school, some Gwinnett County parents have been vocal about wanting their children back in the classroom.
“The virus is not going away, we know it’s not going away. We have to enforce some sort of normal,” said parent Joanne Bayouk. “And though our normal is going to change, our kids need to go back.”
4 positive cases in Columbia County schools
Meanwhile in Columbia County, Georgia, four students from three high schools who attended classes in person this week have tested positive for Covid-19, Columbia County School District Superintendent Sandra Carraway said.
The district started the new school year Monday for those who chose to attend in-person classes. The students who tested positive attended Evans High School, Lakeside High School and Harlem High School.
Carraway said students who were in close contact with the those who tested positive are now quarantining at home. She declined to provide the number of students being quarantined.
High schools in Columbia County are operating on A/B schedules to reduce the number of students at each school on any given day. The district says it requires all students to wear face coverings during transition periods and in any setting where social distancing is not possible.
The Columbia County School District says it also has contact tracing, cleaning and messaging plans in place.
The district sent a message to parents on Wednesday reiterating that students who don’t feel well should stay home. It also noted that anyone waiting for Covid-19 test results, regardless of whether they have symptoms, should not come to school until they receive the results.
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher contributed to this report