Gwinnett reverses decision to order teachers, staff to work on site

The reversal of Gwinnett’s back-to-school order for teachers and other staff was issued Wednesday after the public outcry from teachers and district workers.

The objections were contained in thousands of calls, emails, texts and social media posts to journalists at The Atlanta Journal Constitution; an online petition to school board members; and a letter to district leaders from candidates running for school board seats.

On May 1, Gwinnett County Public Schools released a plan that called for all employees to return to work on-site following six weeks of online learning and working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overwhelming feedback urging district leaders to rethink that directive resulted in Wednesday’s revised plan that goes into effect immediately. Details of the plan include:

For school-based employees

• Continue the current schedule for principals, assistant principals, office staff, custodians, and School Nutrition Program staff.

• Teachers and other staff will no longer be required to report as previously communicated in the original “Return-to-Work Sites Plan.”

• Principals will work with teachers and other staff to arrange times for them to return to the school to close down their classrooms or work spaces and complete other necessary tasks.

For central office personnel

• All employees who hold director-level positions and their administrative assistants are working on site as of May 6. Division leaders are working with staff to adjust schedules as needed to address individual employee situations and to limit the number of people in a work location.

• Similarly, Division leaders will work with all remaining central office staff members, who will return to their work sites beginning the week of May 11.

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The district’s leadership said these adjustments address employees’ childcare issues as well as their health and safety concerns, said district spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

“Principals and directors will make adjustments so that anyone who is apprehensive about coming back to work on-site can work remotely, rotate the times they come in or whatever needs to be done,” she said.

But not everyone is convinced the revisions are looking out for employees. Personnel in central office and administrative positions have told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they’re concerned the allowances don’t apply to them.

“I’ve not been told that I can continue to work remotely,” said one staffer at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center. “There have been provisions for more space between us, but we still have to use the restrooms and the breakrooms. There are a lot of us who just feel it’s too early to come back to work in the building.”

The AJC agreed to protect the anonymity of the employees because they said they fear retaliation from the district and they are not authorized to comment.

A contract worker, said he doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t work. His department has been working remotely for seven weeks.

“We’ve been told we’re doing a great job — exceeding expectations,” he said. “I thought it would be no problem to continue working off site, but I’m not sure.”

He gave a sigh of relief Wednesday when he was told the revised plan will affect him and others in the same situation.

“I’ve been sheltering in place and staying home except to go to the grocery store,” he said. “I’d hate bring anything harmful home to my wife and kids.”

Most other metro Atlanta school districts told the AJC teachers weren’t required to return back to school buildings.

“Barrow County School System is not requiring teachers return to buildings. However, many teachers have requested access to the building to collect personal items or access teaching materials needed for end of year learning or planning for next year,” said spokeswoman Shenley Rountree. “Schools have developed a specific process and schedule that limits the number of people in the building at one time. All staff have been asked to follow the CDC protocols for social distancing and to wear a mask.”

With Gwinnett’s new changes, employees who previously filled out Families First Coronavirus Response Act forms to receive federal aid won’t have to apply. Although they’d receive some pay, the regulation only provides 2/3 of their salary. Anyone who has changed their mind should contact the HR department, said Roach.

“I don’t believe those forms have been processed yet,” she said.

Jonathan Phillips of Denver had reached out to The AJC last week when his two younger sisters who teach in Gwinnett schools told him about the plan. With so much still unknown about COVID-19, he was concerned for their health.

“Thank you for giving a voice to people who may not have had their concerns heard,” he said. “I am so happy that this affected change in the proposed back to work orders by the county.”

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