GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. (CW69 News at 10/CNN) — Coronavirus cases are surging in Gwinnett County, where the numbers are among the highest in the state, but parents and students are demanding schools reopen their doors for the new school year.
“The virus is not going away, we know it’s not going away. We have to enforce some sort of normal,” said one Gwinnett parent, Joanne Bayouk. “And though our normal is going to change, our kids need to go back.”
Gwinnett County accounts for 14,442 of the state’s more than 156,500 cases and 209 coronavirus related deaths, according to Georgia’s Department of Public Health. On Monday, the county’s public schools announced that the new school year would be online only.
Parents took to a closed Facebook group to express their opposition to the decision. The first day the group stood at 255 people. By day two there were about 1,400 people in the group, said the group’s organizer, Kelly Willyard.
The group is gathering outside the Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Instructional Support Center in Suwanee Friday morning to protest the decision to keep students out of school buildings.
“As far as ideal an outcome now, it is going back to the two solutions, giving us the choice for digital and open schools,” said another parent, Sheri Mitchell.
Willyard said it is just the start of protests. Their group hopes to continue with state and national protests.
A change in plans
Until recently, students in the county had the option to go back to school in August.
Parents in the county were given the option to vote on their preferred education plan for the new school year. A district-wide survey showed that 43% of parents prefer a return to in-person instruction, according to Gwinnett County schools. Another 23% prefer an option that combines in-person instruction with digital learning, while 34% of respondents prefer digital-only learning, the survey said.
The district planned to provide both forms of instruction, Sloan Roach, executive director of communication for Gwinnett Public Schools told CNN.
The district also pushed back the reopening to August 12, “giving the district additional time to review and adjust its return to school plans to best meet students’ needs and to reflect the most updated guidance from public health officials,” the district said in a July 7 news release.
Willyard said the district “buckled to political pressure” when parents began organizing protests for online only instruction.
On Monday, before the protests were scheduled to take place following the vote, she said, the district announced that the county would not offer in-person learning at the start of the school year. She said she had been in contact with the school board for weeks leading up to the decision, and she found them supportive of reopening schools.
Roach said the decision to stay with virtual learning was “due to the current COVID-19 situation in our county and the rising numbers of cases in Gwinnett County.”
The county, with a population of 971,145, has one of the highest rates of coronavirus cases in Georgia. As of Thursday, Gwinnett County has at least 1,717 coronavirus patients hospitalized, according to state health data.
Willyard said Gwinnett County Public Schools is aware and cooperative with the protest. Roach said the district shares many of the protesters concerns.
“Like those who are protesting, we had hoped and wanted to start the school year in-person. We had planned to serve students in that manner, as well as digitally,” Roach said. “However, out of concern for our students, families, and employees we had to make the very difficult decision to start entirely digitally. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation in Gwinnett County, using that information to determine when we can safely pivot to in-person instruction.”
It’s not about denying the virus, it’s about knowing what’s best for your own family
Since the decision to go virtual came out, Willyard said she has been trying to contact everyone from the school board, to senators, to the governor and even President Donald Trump.
Her determination is not a denial of the virus and the fears people might have, she said.
“I personally am very supportive and understanding of those that want digital learning. They have their own circumstances, they might have people with underlying conditions at home,” Willyard said. “There are also people that are scared and that’s understandable.”
But just as they should be able to decide what is safest for their children, she said parents like her should be able to so as well.
With the school taking measures like spending thousands of dollars on personal protective equipment and bringing in hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer, Willyard said, she feels empowered to weigh health risks with mental and educational risks.
“COVID is really serious, we understand it’s a real thing but we’ve also weighed the emotional toll it has taken on families,” she said. “Our group has formed out of the love for our children and wanting them to get what they deserve and what we know is right for our children.”
And with coronavirus being as serious as it is, Willyard said that the group acknowledges that the numbers could always turn to a point where in-person education is not the best answer. But, Willyard said, while things could always get worse, parents have the best intentions for the health of their children.
Virtual education is not equal education, parents say
Willyard, and other parents in the group protesting for Gwinnett schools to open for in-person teaching, said while the matter of education choice is an individual right, it is also a matter of equality.
Virtual education will benefit the wealthy, who can pay for childcare and tutors, and “everyone else will have to fend for ourselves,” Willyard said.
For the parents who can’t afford childcare, some may be pushed to decide if they have to leave young children home alone or quit their job, Willyard said, adding that the burden may disproportionately fall on women.
“You can have a kid or you can have a job, but you can’t have both with COVID,” she said.
Learning at home could also mean that some children may feel disproportionate disadvantages.
Some only have school as a safe place to be. Some just can’t focus on a screen for hours at a time.
For children with learning differences, virtual learning could hinder their individual education plans and the services they need to learn, said Bayouk, a parent in the group.
“We haven’t really heard or seen how that’s going to happen online, and that’s concerning,” she said.
“There’s positives and negatives to sending kids to school and there’s positives and negatives to keeping kids home, and we should be able to make that decision,” Mitchell, another parent said.
©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to the story.