ATLANTA, Ga. (CW69 News at 10/CNN) — Ashley Newman had her dream job in Gwinnett County Public Schools – Georgia’s largest school district. She taught gifted fifth graders in the same school district where she grew up and wanted to give back. Last week, she resigned after being denied the option to work from home, while all students will begin learning virtually later this month.
Newman and at least 2,000 other teachers, parents and community stakeholders, have signed a petition asking Gwinnett County Public Schools to allow teachers a work from home option.
As of last Thursday, around 260 district employees had either tested positive for COVID-19 or been in contact with someone who was positive, according to Sloan Roach, the executive director of communication for Gwinnett County Public Schools.
The district, which serves about 180,000 students, decided to start the school year on August 12 with all virtual learning, keeping students at home. It was a decision, made in July, that has prompted parent protests calling for face-to-face options. Meanwhile, the school system told teachers to report to school buildings on July 29 to prepare for the school year.
A teacher tweeted that the school district posted enter at your own risk signs saying they are not liable for any injury or death from COVID-19.
Gwinnett County Public Schools #GCPS is putting signs on the entrances to their buildings saying all persons entering said building do so at their own risk, that, under GA law SB 59, GCPS is not liable if a teacher becomes sick or dies while doing her/his job. pic.twitter.com/iYrZ88Gp5X
— Rawson Gordon (@newoldtymer) August 4, 2020
Roach told CNN that because of the district’s tracing process, they have determined the majority of the 260 cases were from community spread.
“We have people who have called in to report, who have not been at school or work,” Roach said.
‘We just don’t want to die for it or get sick’
As of August 3, Gwinnett County has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia, with more than 17,900 confirmed cases and at least 1,996 hospitalizations, the highest in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“Given the number of COVID cases in Gwinnett, we would expect to see positives among our employees based on the community spread in our county,” Roach said.
Teachers told CNN they are frightened of the risk of exposure, while they also grapple with their own childcare issues.
A staff member at Baggett Elementary School shared an email with CNN from her school principal, describing how one asymptomatic employee found out about a positive test result after coming to campus and exposing others.
The employee who shared this email wished to remain anonymous because she’s not authorized to speak publicly. She said the email did not disclose who the COVID-positive employee was, and though staff were reassured that all those in contact with the person had been notified, she said she can’t be 100% sure she didn’t come near that colleague.
“It’s not fair at all. We want to work. We love what we do, but we just don’t want to die for it or get sick,” she said.
“It’s a pandemic across the world. The globe. Everyone is dealing with the same thing. You can always catch up on education if need be, but you can’t teach a dead child.”
The educator said she observed colleagues hugging and standing in close proximity to each other during some sessions, where they were required to train in the same room. Other training sessions were virtual.
But the experience varies. At another Gwinnett school, a teacher told CNN almost all current training is virtual, so teachers are almost exclusively attending from behind their individual classroom doors.
‘Influx of resignations’
Newman, who resigned after being left with no options to care for her 4-year-old daughter, said she thinks there is “about to be an influx of resignations in Gwinnett County due to no adjustments made in this case.”
“And I want to speak up on behalf of those that are either too nervous to speak up for the possibility of any retaliation, or they just don’t know how,” she added.
Gwinnett County Public Schools allows teachers with school-aged children, 5 years old and older, to do their virtual learning in the school buildings with their parents. But for teachers with younger children, childcare is now a major issue.
Newman said she felt uncomfortable sending her toddler to a daycare during the pandemic, and no relatives live close enough to care for her daughter.
While current federal policies allow for teleworking or emergency paid sick leave, teachers like Newman may not qualify, since the childcare center for her daughter has not closed due to COVID-19.
She said, “For them to see my resignation as just another number, when I’ve contributed so much of my time and energy to making Gwinnett as great as they really want to be, it is very difficult to feel like my contributions are going unknown or unrecognized.”
Nicole Conway, who teaches a small group of elementary special education students, has also had resignation on her mind. Conway, who has two children 5 years old and younger, has no one to look after her kids while she’s at school.
“I am just feeling very overwhelmed. Very torn. Because my heart wants to be with my students so bad because they need that consistency,” Conway said. “I have literally been trying to decide if that is something that I can feasibly manage income-wise, financially and still be, you know, certain not to put me under basically. But yes, I am highly considering resigning due to the circumstances just to make sure that my kids are safe and healthy.”
Conway and other teachers told CNN the school system did not give them a reason why teachers must be in the school buildings while all classes are virtual. They point to an atmosphere of lack of trust.
Newman said that while teachers were heralded as heroes early in the pandemic when classes first went virtual, “that narrative has shifted to something extremely negative, where the accountability of teachers is being questioned. We’re not being treated as the professionals that we truly are, to be able to say that we trust our educators to do the work from home, just like millions of people are working from home right now.”
In an email statement to CNN on Monday, Roach said she could not speak to individual cases due to privacy concerns.
But overall, she said teachers are reporting to work on-site, “to deliver their digital lessons, participate in staff development, and collaborate with their fellow teachers to make digital instruction more effective for their students. This also will help when the time comes with the transition to in-person instruction for those families who selected that option.”
“We acknowledged that for some employees, reporting to school might be difficult for a number of reasons,” she added. “Principals and HR have been working with those staff members to address individual concerns and make accommodations where possible. Due to the leave options available, opportunities for working from home are very limited.”
In the rest of metro Atlanta area, Fulton County Public Schools also requires teachers and staff to work on-site.
Like in Gwinnett, Fulton County employees are also allowed to bring school-aged children with them to work during the virtual learning period. But Cobb County Public Schools told CNN it would allow teachers the option to teach from home, and DeKalb County Public Schools said no teachers would be working on-site to prepare or teach virtual classes.
Many of these districts require face masks for all on site, with enhanced cleaning measures in place.
©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to the story.