Disagreements Over Reopening Schools Have Some Gwinnett Parents Worried About Accreditation

Gwinnett County school board members listen to public comments during their February meeting.
Gwinnett County school board members listen to public comments during their February meeting.
Credit Martha Dalton / WABE

Disagreements in the Gwinnett County Public Schools over the district’s decision to continue with in-person learning have some parents worried the school system’s accreditation could be at risk. COVID-19 cases are down in Gwinnett, but they’re still higher than experts recommend to reopen schools. The district shifted to online learning during the week of Jan. 19-22 to give teachers who had contracted COVID-19 time to quarantine before returning to their classrooms.

The In-Person vs. Remote Debate

Some board members raised concerns about resuming in-person learning. However, the board doesn’t decide whether schools close. The superintendent does. Gwinnett’s Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks has said students will continue to have the option to learn face-to-face for now. (They can opt for remote learning if they want.)

During the district’s February school board meeting, there were sharp disagreements between community members over school reopenings. Some parents said the district needs to develop its own benchmarks for reopening instead of relying on state or federal standards.

“We demand a board-sponsored pandemic task force that sets thresholds for the spread of COVID to determine learning settings and makes policy recommendations,” Sherie Green said. “Right now, our country and county are divided. As a community, we see factions within our board. I ask that you find common ground and work together.”

However, other parents expressed frustration with occasional shifts to all-remote learning, especially for students with special needs, who often need services that are hard to deliver virtually.

“Remote learning is not acceptable for most students,” April Huff said. “There are no thresholds or additional COVID task forces or debates on closing schools needed. The answer is clear: schools must be open.”

 Some comments went further, taking aim at individual board members for their stances on reopening. That prompted Board Chair Everton Blair to remind community members of board policy, which prohibits speakers from addressing individual board members during the public comment period.

Will Dissention Affect Accreditation?

The high tensions and disagreements among board members led some parents to speculate that the district’s accreditation could be at risk.

“The goal that we all have here is for children to graduate and to graduate from an accredited school system,” said Gwinnett parent Lauren Bishop.

An accreditation loss could affect college acceptance rates and scholarships. It’s also extremely rare, accreditors say.

Mark Elgart is the president and CEO of Cognia (formerly the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or SACS), which accredits most Georgia districts. He said accreditation is a sign that schools have met certain standards.

“[Accreditation] gives you an assurance not only is the school working to improve each and every day, it’s also held to a set of standards upon which that school is to maintain a level of quality,” Elgart said in a previous interview with WABE. “But when something is weak or needs improvement, they’re expected to improve to maintain accreditation.”

In 2008, the Clayton County Public Schools lost its accreditation due mostly to poor board governance. Prior to the loss, the district was sanctioned by SACS, which issued nine requirements the district needed o meet to retain accreditation. The district only met one of the nine mandates.

Other Atlanta districts have been sanctioned, including the DeKalb County School District and Atlanta Public Schools, for similar reasons: dysfunctional board leadership. In DeKalb’s case, then-Gov. Nathan Deal stepped in and removed two-thirds of the school board members.

Currently, all three districts (Clayton, DeKalb, and APS) are accredited without sanctions.

Blair, Gwinnett’s school board chair, said he’s not worried about his district’s accreditation.

“We will absolutely be an accredited school system,” Blair said. “I have no doubt about that, and we can absolutely work together to ensure the success of the 180,000 students that work [sic] here while understanding that in a county of a million people, no one decision or no one thing that any one of us says is going to please or appease everybody all the time.”

In a statement to WABE, Cognia said:

“We are aware of the changes in Gwinnett County and the discussions in the community.  We are actively monitoring the district’s response to these concerns.”

Cognia added Gwinnett is not in “imminent danger” of losing accreditation.

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