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Gwinnett school return plan praised as national model by health director

By Amanda C. Coyne, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Gwinnett’s chief public health official touted the county school district’s return to in-person learning a model for schools nationwide after a Friday morning tour of Discovery High School in Lawrenceville.

Gwinnett County Public Schools is in its second week of the three-week return plan. Students opting for classroom learning started returning Aug. 26. Children at the beginning of each level of learning — kindergartners, first graders, sixth graders and ninth graders — and special education students were the first group to come back after spending the first two weeks of the school year completely virtual. Grades 2, 3, 7 and 10 returned Sept. 2, and the remaining grades — 4, 5, 8, 11 and 12 — will come back Sept. 9.

As of Friday, the district expects about 40% of its more than 180,000 students to be learning in person this fall, said Steve Flynt, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support. The split was almost 50/50 on Aug. 20, before any students had gone back to schools, but parents are able to change their children’s selection as late as the evening before their grade returns. Discovery High School planned for up to 1,500 of its more than 2,700 students to return this year, but as the last phase of returning students is nearing, they now expect between 900 and 1,000, Principal Marci Sledge said.

The phased approach helps students and teachers easily adjust to the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Audrey Arona, health director for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Department . The district’s plan also helps teachers and administrators identify potential issues on a smaller scale, allowing them to be fixed sooner, Sledge said.

“Big picture things have not needed to be adjusted, but what you realize when you have a smaller group of students is, ’Okay, this is working now but I could see where we need to tweak it before we get a bigger group in here,’” Sledge said. “It allows us to make those just-in-time adjustments. But the major pieces are working.”

Those “big picture” measures include a district-wide mask mandate, frequent cleaning and social distancing whenever possible.

Despite steps the district has taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students and staff have tested positive since the beginning of the school year. Teachers have been reporting to their classrooms since the beginning of the school year, teaching alone virtually until students return for face-to-face instruction.

On Aug. 18, the first day the district published a detailed report of COVID-19 cases among faculty, staff and students, 13 people had tested positive for the disease and 76 were suspected positive. Another 141 were considered “close contacts,” meaning they may have closely interacted with someone who had tested positive, thus putting them at risk. As of the Sept. 3 report, there were nine people within the district who had tested positive and 248 who were suspected positive. There were 591 close contacts, including entire football teams at Berkmar High School and Mill Creek High School. The district reports only include cases considered “active,” defined as within the 14-day quarantine window.

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