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Some Gwinnett students return to classroom as phased transition begins for state's largest district

On Wednesday, the district handled 427 teachers who were out and requested substitutes. 546 teachers called out on the same day last year.

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Gwinnett County Public Schools has begun to transition students back to the classroom. On Wednesday, many in kindergarten, first grade, sixth grade and ninth grade returned, along with special education students in self-contained classrooms.

District officials said 56 percent of students opted to continue learning digitally from home, while 44 percent returned to school for in-person instruction. GCPS doesn't have an enrollment count yet for the 2020-2021 school year, but last year enrollment was more than 180,000.  

Nicole D'Agostino decided to send her son Landon to his freshman classes today.

"I just don't think personally the education at home was as good as what he would get in school," D'Agostino said.

Her daughter Lauren will head to her third-grade classroom next week when third graders have the option to return.

"There is always some apprehension because you want to keep your children safe and you want to do what is best for them," D'Agostino said. She added she understands each family will need to make the choice they believe is right for them."

She was comfortable sending her son to school Wednesday based on information they received from the district about safety measures being put in place and its plans to follow CDC guidelines.  

While on campuses, all students, faculty, staff and visitors are required to wear a mask. They said lunches and recess will be staggered.

One-way signs are now in hallways and plans are in place for social distancing.

The school also has plans for increased cleaning of both school buildings and school buses.

After being at home since March, D'Agostino said her children are want to learn in a classroom, instead of at home. 

"The social component I believe is huge for the kids, especially teenagers. Just being at home was starting to wear on them."

At the most recent Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting, 52 people signed up to speak. Some of them spoke in favor of students returning to classrooms. Others spoke against the district's plans, including first-grade teacher Amy Forehand. 

"I'm scared for my health, I'm scared for my family's health, I'm scared for my co-worker's health and I'm scared for my student's health," Forehand said.

Today, the district handled 427 teachers who were out and requested substitutes. 

"Our schools did a great job in preparing for the return of the first of our students to in-person instruction, ensuring that their buildings and staff were ready and that they had substitutes ready to provide coverage for the teachers who were out today," district spokesperson Sloan Roach said. "This ensured we were able to keep the focus where it needed to be … on our students."

The number of call-outs is actually less when compared to the 547 teachers who called out on the same day last year, Roach said.

On Aug. 12, the entire district began the school year with virtual learning. It did not start as smoothly as many had hoped as the county dealt with an overload of students logging in at the same time.

By Sept. 9, all grades will transition to in-person instruction for those parents who have opted into that choice for their students.

Parents who were not comfortable sending students back to the classroom still had the option to continue with virtual learning. 

"We understand that no plan will be universally popular with all stakeholders. But we are committed to doing what we believe is best for students in terms of their health, safety, and education," superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks previously said. 

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