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What are the challenges of digital learning, with Jonathon Wetherington [Podcast]



Jonathon Wetherington

As we continue to move through this global pandemic, schools across the country are having to re-learn and re-imagine what their curriculum looks like. Join Rico Figliolini, Alan Kaplan, and our guest on today’s podcast, Jonathon Wetherington, principal of Paul Duke STEM High School as they discuss how education can work during this time.

Website: https://www.gcpsk12.org/pauldukestemhs
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PaulDukeSTEM/

“And I think the silver lining is that we’re discovering, we’re learning more about our students and how we can better meet their needs at all times. So typically a teacher thinks about how they can meet the students’ needs in their classroom. And now I think that we’re facing the reality of getting to know our students better so we can meet their needs at home as well. And that’s a two way street. The students value the fact that knowing the teacher cares, the teacher’s reaching out. And I think we’re building bridges between parents and teachers and parents and students that will pay dividends for years to come.”

Jonathon Wetherington


[00:00:30] – Intro
[00:02:55] – Facing the Challenges of Online Learning
[00:07:22] – A New-Normal
[00:10:30] – Technicalities and Social Interactions
[00:13:39] – Hands On Activities
[00:16:25] – Staff on Campus
[00:18:50] – Finals
[00:20:18] – Providing Structure
[00:28:15] – Other Staff
[00:29:59] – Silver Linings and Social Media
[00:33:07] – Graduation in 2020

Podcast Transcript

Rico: [00:00:30] Hi everyone. This is Rico Figliolini host of the Ed Hour this week with Alan Kaplan, my cohost. We’ve been gone for a little while, but we’re back and Alan’s going to be introducing our guest in a little bit. Before we get there, I want to be able to introduce our sponsor of this family of podcasts, and that is Hargray Fiber. They’re a fiber company that’s working B2B in the Southeast and successfully in Peachtree Corners and the metropolitan Atlanta area and throughout Georgia. They provide bundle services for enterprise solutions. They are a company that gets your internet done on a very local community basis. They’re not the cable guy, if you will. They’re out there, they’re involved in the community. They involved in everything that we’re doing out there, being active members, good members of the community, and they’re there for the business community as well. In fact, they’re running a promotion right now that is I think it’s 90 days free internet for those that sign up with them. You can find out more information about Hargray Fiber by going to HargrayFiber.com and check them out. Alan, introduce yourself again and what we’re doing here, and then Jonathon, right?

Alan: [00:01:43] Hi, welcome back again, everybody. This is Alan Kaplan. Great to be with you again. It seems like a, we’re all on video more these days, and I hope everyone, this finds everybody well, healthy and happy. I’m thrilled today to have our guest Jonathon Whetherington with us. Some of you may recall that we had Jonathan with us once before when he opened up the Paul Duke STEM high school. Jonathan Whetherington is the principal of the Paul Duke STEM high school serving students of Peachtree Corners, Norcross and the Norcross cluster in the greater Metro Atlanta area for those outside of this area. So, and here with us today, he’s going to talk to us a little bit about, digital learning, the challenges that are facing all of us and all of our students these days. And particularly how Paul Duke STEM high school is addressing the needs of our students through this current new, new challenge of, of learning. So, with that Jonathan, if you could, kind of, you know, talk to us a little bit about what’s happening there and what, what’s some of the challenges are currently.

Johnathon: [00:02:55] Well, Rico and Alan thanks for having me. And so, Paul Duke STEM high school opened, in the fall of 2018 and we opened in a unique model that has positioned us well for the current context. But, I’ll talk some more about that. But when we opened, we were basically serving students face to face every, four days a week. And then on Fridays, we’ve been doing digital learning for the last year and a half. Which has prepared our teachers and our students for an online learning environment. But where we find ourselves today, in a continuous state of online learning, is different than where we started. We feel like we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last 18 months that have helped our students be successful today. We’ve also shared the things that we’ve learned with our sister high schools in the, in Gwinnett County and have really worked together with district leaders and other school leaders to help come up with the best, best options to support students at not only Paul Duke STEM, but all of our high schools. So thinking about some of the challenges that we face. So I would say some of the challenges that we currently face are just the reality of teaching online in a continuous basis. So one of the things that exist when you teach students is you, you convey information, right? We’ve all been there. The teacher tells us what, what they want us to learn. We read the assignments, we do the practice problems. But sometimes we find ourselves in a situation
where we’re making little mistakes, things that the teacher couldn’t prep us for, and we get stuck in those ruts. And there are some nuances in teaching that are more difficult to deliver digitally. And so that’s some work that we’re doing right now. Other challenges we face are around student access. Some of our students don’t have reliable access to technology or the internet. And so it becomes a challenge to work with both those contexts.

Alan: [00:04:50] So, so Jonathan, so initially Gwinnett County and Paul Duke STEM high school did have something in place to be able to learn digitally. Tell us a little bit about how, what that was set up for and then how that has transformed into what you’re doing today.

Johnathon: [00:05:07] That’s a great question. So really over the last, over 10 years, honestly, Gwinnett County public schools has been gradually transitioning to more and more digital learning. And so almost a decade ago, we launched our E-Class initiative, which is an electronic digital not only platform, but experience by which our students take tests. They learn, they engage both at school and at home with their teachers and with content in a powerful way. And so we started that journey almost a decade ago. And over the last few years we have used digital learning days to get through some weather situations where the weather prevented students from being able to go to school. We didn’t have to cancel school. We were able to have school digitally. And so Gwinnett has engaged regularly over the last couple of years in digital learning days.

Rico: [00:06:01] Now, is that the case, that’s not really the case throughout all of Gwinnett County, or is that select schools?

Johnathon: [00:06:07] No, all of Gwinnett. It started with a few schools back in I think 2011 and so gradually over the last eight, nine years. We have all progressed. We’re all schools that had at least one or two digital learning days due to weather in the last two years.

Rico: [00:06:23] You know, and I probably would ask you the question a little. This is far a field for you. I mean, the lower grades, obviously the high schools are doing it, but I’m not sure how has the middle schools or the elementary schools dealing with it. But certainly I would think it’s a challenge for them even more.

Johnathon: [00:06:39] I think the, when you look at digital learning at lower grades, and even at high school, it becomes a partnership with the, with the family. So you have to remember that the child’s first teacher is its parents. And so parents are playing an important role. And the younger the student is the more important role that parent plays. But even at the high school level, parents are important. We interact with parents a lot as we support and encourage students. So really at the lower, lower grades, you’re talking about being a really tight partnership with parents. And then over time, those local school assumes more of that responsibility. And in a digital environment, that partnership is really emphasized. And I think you are both parents. You’ve seen that. And live that reality as well.

Rico: [00:07:22] What, what does it look like for a normal, for a child to be doing digital learning on a day like today? I know some schools are using zoom, but not everyone does that. And then some have portals like Gwinnett County has a portal system. So how does a typical day look like for a student at Paul Duke STEM high school?

Johnathon: [00:07:42] So that, no, that’s a great question. So today is actually a gold day. We use our school colors to designate what goes on on a given day. On blue days, students have assignments from their language arts, social studies, science, and health PE classes. And on gold days they have their math classes, their technology classes, fine arts and world languages. And so we don’t have the students doing assignments for every class every day. Over the last 18 months, we’ve learned that the students needed some sort of balance. It’s hard to figure out the right dose of learning to give a student, and if they’re doing learning in all seven, six classes. It can sometimes overwhelm the student.

Rico: [00:08:22] Do you use a lot of videos or being, you know, everyone’s familiar with like zoom, especially if you tele-working, you get a dozen people on the screen. Is that the same thing from Paul Duke or is it different? Is it more document based?

Johnathon: [00:08:36] We do recorded videos so that the student can watch the video, stop it, play it back, record it, and then we do independent activities. And then our teachers have three hours of office hours per week at designated times so the students can check in with the teachers if they’re struggling. Cause sometimes you just need to hear it explained a couple of different ways.

Alan: [00:09:03] So with, with that, you know, so one of my questions was about lesson planning. So you said that there’s prerecorded videos that the students watch. Tell us from a teacher’s perspective, what are they facing in terms of lesson planning? What, what are their challenges in planning these lessons differently than they had to before?

Johnathon: [00:09:25] I would say the first thing is, is that. Teachers love what they teach, but they love the students that they teach more. And so I think there’s an emotional toll that this plays on teachers where they, none of them, very few of our teachers got into this to do teaching this way. So they’re often, there’s an emotional undercurrent to this, to where the teachers want to be there for their students. They want their students to be successful. They want to help their students learn and maximize their success. So teachers have some stress from that, and so they’re really trying to figure out creative and interesting ways to deliver the content to students. So they’re oftentimes working with their peers to design the lesson and then record some of the video based instruction that’s necessary. I was talking with a teacher today and she was explaining that she started off just kind of giving the directions on the screen in bullets. Now she still does that, but she records a little video of herself reading the bullets to the kids because students are used to people doing that. They’re used to those adults guiding them along the way, and she found that really helped her students.

Rico: [00:10:30] Do you find the technical part of being a teacher, the, the administrative part. Has that changed? I mean, are we still taking attendance? I know that some school systems worry about you have to take attendance or you don’t have to take it. Is the parent calling in to say, yes, my child’s doing the work, or how do you handle that aspect of it?

Johnathon: [00:10:51] So we don’t take attendance. What we do is we look for student work completion. So we give assignments to students, and then we expect them over the course of a couple of days to complete those assignments. So in some of the case of some of our students, they’re out there working and the current situation has given them a greater opportunity to work. So they’re working in grocery stores, fast food restaurants. So some of our students are actually in more essential jobs than our teachers are because their students are going out into the world working and then coming home and doing their learning.

Alan: [00:11:25] Is there any opportunity, Jonathan, for, you know, one of the things that kids, most kids like about school is their opportunity to socially interact with students and to see their friends as well as their teachers that they’ve made, they’ve, they’ve created bonds with. Is there that any live opportunity for them to engage as a group of their classmates and or teachers?

Johnathon: [00:11:50] Yes. So every student has at least three hours that they can engage live with their teacher. Of course, with all seven teachers at our school, three hours that they can pick throughout the week to engage with their teacher. And we built a master schedule that prevents the math teacher from having office hours at the same time as the language arts teacher in the same time science teacher. Which allows teachers to check in with different students at different times without creating scheduling conflicts. That gets to be a big issue when you get to large numbers of students.

Alan: [00:12:20] With one teacher though, is there any type of group video that can take place with multiple students and the teacher?

Johnathon: [00:12:27] Actually, those teacher office hours, oftentimes multiple students will jump in. And we see that going on. We see it really powerfully with our world language teacher. So our French teachers have done some great job, have done a great job with bringing multiple students together at the same time so students can interact in French or Spanish. And so those, those language teachers are really good at. The other thing, really with just our seniors. We actually have a senior play date every day or every week at 3:30 on Wednesdays. And with our seniors, you know, losing some of the other things to their senior year, to help mitigate that and to help them stay emotionally connected with each other. We do a Google meet where. All of them actually come in. And last week we actually had 80% of our seniors joining into that group.

Alan: [00:13:17] Wow. Wow. That’s amazing participation.

Johnathon: [00:13:21] Yeah, it is. And so they’re chit chatting with each other. They enjoy seeing each other. And we do see that with our students, even with younger students, older
students, they will, they miss that contact. With the teachers and the students that they care about. And so it’s great to see their faces light up when they’re happy to see you.

Rico: [00:13:39] You know, with, Paul Duke’s a little different from, let’s say, Norcross, where there’s more sports. Actually they do sports there let’s say, so I can, you know, that, that it’s a whole different animal altogether now with sports. Those poor kids not being able to do, you know, go to championships, things that they’ve trained for you have to do. But Paul Duke also has. Theater, right? You have Music. So how has that, how so? How is that more hands on stuff? How’s that being handled?

Johnathon: [00:14:08] So that requires a lot of creativity for the teachers to how do you teach dance or, you know, how to play the cello or the Viola.

Rico: [00:14:17] Or graphic design, right?

Johnathon: [00:14:21] So those interactive experiences and the culminating products look different than the math class does. And so those teachers have been really creative in how they approach that. I know our dance teacher has been recording videos of some exercises and movements that she does and been sharing those with dance teachers across the school district because it can often get monotonous to be learning the same sort of thing from the same teacher. So I know in, in Gwinnett County public schools, the dance teachers are trading video lessons, basically choreography where their choreography dances and then they’re giving that to other students. So that, the students are learning just like they would from different choreographers if they were really in class.

Rico: [00:15:04] Wow. That’s phenomenal. I mean that I can see how that can reinvigorate almost a learning situation.

Johnathon: [00:15:11] It takes away some of the monotony and boredom that comes from hearing the same talking head every day.

Rico: [00:15:17] Yes. I can’t see doing classwork four hours straight on a portal, although I see my son comes down at a certain hour, he finishes at a certain hour, he’s actually the next right in the dining room next to my office, and he’s doing his thing. I can see it and he’s chitchatting with his friends on another computer as well, and it’s just, you know. It’s a good thing.

Johnathon: [00:15:35] And that is a good thing and it makes me feel good to know that students are doing that, that they are finding ways to socially connect since one of the big places that they socially connect is school.

Rico: [00:15:46] Right, right. And the portal doesn’t quite give you that out of that, that part of it. You can’t quite talk to your friends on there, but they’re using other, you know, whether it’s
Google hangout or for them, I think it’s discord or some other online services. But they’re chatting while they’re doing stuff.

Alan: [00:16:04] So, so Jonathan, obviously the teachers are working remotely, but there’s a, there are certain staff that’s necessary.

Rico: [00:16:18] You’re gonna have to come back again. Alan, hold on. Sorry. You’re freezing up, buddy. And this happens, technology.

Johnathon: [00:16:25] That’s, and I think a little bit of what Alan was asking is that there are, the teachers are working from home, but we do have staff members on campus. So our cafeteria, our cafeteria workers are on campus. Preparing student lunches. We have our custodians are getting the building ready, keeping it clean, and getting it ready for when students eventually do return. We have a few administrators on campus that are working through administrative tasks that we need to finish out the year. I come into work every day and, you know, oversee that, have meetings digitally with, community partners, teachers, students, parents. You know, in many ways, you know, schools are cornerstones of our community and to totally close them down, it’s almost greater wounds us at this time. And so keeping schools open, being a place where students can find resources or connect with someone, even if it’s on the phone, is important.

Rico: [00:17:26] So are you guys practicing social distancing, wearing masks and all that I guess?

Johnathon: [00:17:31] We are. So we, actually work in separate offices. We don’t actually interact. It’s pretty, it’s pretty antisocial or sterile for a school, but the lights are on. We’re taking care of people. We’re able to deal with some needs. We are actually even now loaning Chromebooks. So we have some students whose technology has either broken in the time we’ve been off school or their access hasn’t been consistent. So we’ve been able to loan some Chromebooks and help students have the access they need.

Rico: [00:18:02] I think the last day of school was May 20th for Gwinnett County.

Johnathon: [00:18:12] That’s correct.

Rico: [00:18:13] Right. So it’s a four day learning week. Friday’s like a day off because everything’s consolidated into that four day week schedule until the 20th.

Johnathon: [00:18:22] Well, it’s not really a day off. We, we use that day to catch up with students to connect with them. We find a lot of our students may have taken a quiz that week and not done very well. So Friday gives us a chance to reteach, give them a chance to perform as well as they normally would. Normally, not in a school week, you know, you would be able to
intervene in real time. But since our students aren’t doing school in real time, we need a day to kind of check in on them, maintain their learning, and push them forward.

Rico: [00:18:50] How would you, how are you handling finals? You know, end of semester testing?

Johnathon: [00:18:59] So regarding final exams in a semester, so we will be doing final exams at the end of the semester. They’ll look a little different. Testing has to look a little different in this environment. You can’t, it’s not just going to be your bubble sheets or essay tests. So we have to find some different ways to ensure our students can show us what they know.

Rico: [00:19:20] Well. Yeah, that would make sense. Also, you know I think, if you did multiple choices, I can see people on the, on the second device trying to figure out what everyone’s doing. It could be a problem, right?

Johnathon: [00:19:32] Well, and you know, in Rico, that’s a great point. I mean, we’ve even seen the college board is going to be doing AP testing. It allowed students to do the test at home, and so they’ve moved away from multiple choice tests and they’re going to more free response, constructive response. The students can answer on a computer. Or even hand write and take a picture and submit under a short time frame. So we know that teenagers can often be creative, collaborative learners and while that’s a beneficial 21st century skill.

Rico: [00:20:03] Love the way you put that.

Johnathon: [00:20:04] You’re welcome. Yeah. We really want our students to be able to show us what they know, not what their friends know. So we come up with some creative ways to help us ensure that we’re actually assessing the student.

Rico: [00:20:15] Good.

Alan: [00:20:18] So, so Johnathon you know, one of the, the, in addition to keep our, our kids learning and moving forward, you know, one of the great benefits I see of, of the digital learning through this crisis is providing our kids structure. To be out of the norm in most aspects of their life with the shelter in place and so forth. This begins to add back some, some normalcy or structure to their lives that they would otherwise be missing. And, you know, and I worry about that a little bit because summer is coming and while they’re normally, you know, have that free time and lack of structure in the summer, that’s something that’s typically desired. I worry that without the structure, that our kids have the opportunity now I worry about my own kids is where does that place us with this summer, if we still find ourselves in this situation this summer? I almost wish that there was a way to have an opportunity for these kids to continue to learn, but also to have this community structure, this structure. As you said, the school is a cornerstone of our community and it’s providing such an important role beyond just education to help kids manage through this crisis. Though I don’t know if there is anything that’s available through the
schools to help our kids through the summer if we’re still in the situation. But, can you, you have any thoughts on that?

Johnathon: [00:21:46] Yes. So I know that one of the things that we’re considering is really what might that look like. And so we know that school plays an important part in providing structure in students’ lives, but also you know, teachers last day of employment by their contract is the 22nd. So there’s this, there’s this middle ground, I think, or this place where we can give resources to parents, give resources to students to help them maintain that structure as they move from May to June and then into July. Hopefully things will continue to improve. That people will keep social distance in mind, even as folks start to go back to work. But I am hopeful that we can begin to gain some of the, regain some of those structures in our environment so that we can give people a break from school. I think it’s, it’s, it’d be time for a break by the time we get to the end of the semester, but then how can we also give our students structure. When they haven’t been in school physically since really mid March.

Rico: [00:22:48] Yeah. How do you plan even, how do you plan out, like even looking at long term. Because you know, yes, we may roll out of this the beginning of May, middle of May, end of May. Who knows, and what does it look like going back to school in August?

Johnathon: [00:23:04] Correct.

Rico: [00:23:04] And especially if they talk about being prepared for a second wave or the way we have to be different socially. So this way we don’t catch a second wave, maybe, but is that being discussed somewhere?

Johnathon: [00:23:18] Oh, absolutely. Our district leaders are having these conversations. We’re thinking through all the possibilities. We want our students to be safe. We want them to be learning effectively. You know, it’s not worth putting people at risk to, to endanger people. So we’re looking at all the possibilities. We’re thinking about how we can leverage the, the lessons that we’re learning now for this year and for the future.

Rico: [00:23:41] Now, it was, I was thinking about the other day, before today’s podcast, I was thinking a little bit about when I visited and checked out the 3D printers, you guys had the mechatronics. Looking at that, looking at the code and looking at the, even the movie equipment that you guys have to be able to shoot films, the greenscreen. None of that is being able to be used at this point it seems. Which is a shame, right?

Johnathon: [00:24:07] Right.

Rico: [00:24:08] So how I don’t know, what do you do with that?

Johnathon: [00:24:12] So, so right now we are looking at, you know, we’ve, we’ve checked out some things to students, some films, and so we actually had a student, some of our students in
our filmmaking classes are using their phones, to make films as they’re out in appropriate social distancing backyard film, so to speak, that they’re making with their families. Or we’ve also loaned a few pieces out to students who are working on more sustained projects. And so we’re trying to find ways to use those resources. We’ve looked, tried to look for some partnerships with the 3D printers. We know that there are some, some folks that can leverage those successfully. So we’ve reached out to a few people, we’re waiting to hear back about ways that we can use the resources we have in the school since the school’s open to some employees to be able to use the resources we have to do good in our community.

Rico: [00:24:59] Great idea, actually. As far as the challenges that you’re facing on, you know, you were telling us before about how students can use the free time to talk to teachers and such. And that’s a choice that a student needs to make. You know how kids are sometimes, no, I know enough, or no, I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to interact. Why don’t you email? No, I don’t need to do that. How do you sort of not force it upon them, but how do you, do you do any of that to try a proactive use of, of that, that work?

Johnathon: [00:25:35] So, you know, I would, what I would tell parents is, is that I have two seniors myself, and then I have an eighth grader and we have, we have a contract worked out per se. So that as long as they’re doing their work and they’re performing well in their online learning, their face to face sessions can continue to be optional. But if they start to struggle a little bit, then they need to go to the face to face session. And then actually with my youngest student, I require her to go to at least every other online session. Because I think as students at the younger, they are, the more important it is to kind of force them, you know, to interact. And cause they don’t realize the benefit that comes from that interaction. Whereas a more mature student or an older student might be more autonomous, might be able to better self-regulate. So it is really up to each, each parent and student to find that perfect media. But what I want our parents to know, or parents around the world to know is that your teachers care about your students. They want to see them interact live when possible. And they certainly want to, to know when the, the parent needs additional help.

Alan: [00:26:45] Well, I, you know, I think you said it earlier, Jonathan, is, you know, our teachers and… As being a big impact to them, not being able to interact with them the way that they traditionally have and just still stay motivated and focused and on track themselves to be able to continue to help our students continue to learn while still dealing. With the challenges that they have personally and emotionally through this process. And, and so, you know, speaking for the teachers that then my kids are interacting with in their schools. I’m, so most impressed with, with the ability of these teachers to, forge forward, to stay motivated, to stay positive for the benefit of our kids.

Johnathon: [00:27:29] Yeah. Our, our teachers, we certainly are. Healthcare workers, folks on the frontline first responders are heroes, but I think this has been an interesting place where teachers have really emerged and showed some of their superpowers. They have really stepped up their efforts to really help our students be successful. And really the teachers want
the students to be successful. They’re being very creative in how they tackle some of those challenges, knowing that our students are facing very unique challenges. More unique than typically we see in a school where everybody’s in the same room at the same time, same amount of time with the teacher. We can control some of those variables. In our current context, the variables are less controlled, so the teachers are really looking for how they can rise to the challenge.

Rico: [00:28:15] What about the other staffing? I mean, you have, you know, bus drivers, obviously there’s no driving at this point. How, you know, I know this, the school system is actually still hiring. I’ve seen ads where they’re still hiring. The school goes back and eventually you need bus drivers, right?

Johnathon: [00:28:35] So we see our bus, so our bus drivers right now, some of them are delivering lunches, and so they’re actually delivering meals into the community. Every, you know, we have 68 schools that are preparing lunches and breakfast now. We’ve now have breakfast and lunch, being prepared, delivered in the community. And so our bus drivers are doing some of that, with our cafeteria teams. So that has really been amazing to see students come out every day, walk to their bus stop. You know, get a lunch and be able to go back home. So those little things matter, and Alan, you were referring to those routines and those important pieces, those little things matter when stuff starts to get chaotic in the rest of the world. And so the little details really become important. And so I’m just grateful to, to those bus drivers, to the cafeteria workers. You know, our school counselors are actually still available and they’re meeting with students on regular basis, providing social emotional support, but also working with kids as they try to get into colleges. So those kinds of nuance details. Our clerical workers are calling in and checking on our students. And parents making sure they’re okay. What really online learning does is it forces us to really reach out into the community more so than I think we did when we were a brick and mortar institution, which has its benefits.

Rico: [00:29:57] Is there a silver lining to this?

Alan: [00:29:59] And I think Jonathan. Sorry, I sorry, Rico. I think there’s a delay with us, but I heard you mentioned a silver lining, and that’s kind of plays into what I was going to say is, you know, providing this structure as we get through this crisis, having our schools there and having the staff and teachers doing what they’re doing. I really see our schools as an anchor in this storm. To our students and to our community. So all, all of you and all of them were, you know, as parents and community members were extremely grateful for that stability that the schools are providing our community.

Johnathon: [00:30:42] Well, thank you. And I think the silver lining is that we’re discovering, we’re learning more about our students and how we can better meet their needs at all times. So typically a teacher thinks about how they can meet the students’ needs in their classroom. And now I think that we’re facing the reality of getting to know our students better so we can meet their needs at home as well. And that’s a two way street. The students value the fact that
knowing the teacher cares, the teacher’s reaching out. And I think we’re building bridges between parents and teachers and parents and students that will pay dividends for years to come.

Rico: [00:31:20] Yeah. Norcross high school is using social media to an extent to be able to get some things going and out there. And Paul Duke does the same, you know, I mean, it was another thing. I think seeing your pictures on Instagram that. Is there anything supposed to that Paul Duke is doing on their, on their social media?

Johnathon: [00:31:40] We’ve done a few things on social media to, to really engage our students, to really make them laugh sometimes. And so we did a faculty and staff truth or dare before spring break where we basically, you know, different staff members challenged each other to truth or dares, recorded those on Instagram and posted it. And we really saw our followership increased during that window. And then now some of our teachers actually get on to their, their Instagram stories and basically walk through the day’s lesson so the student can wake up first thing in the morning if they’re following their teacher, kind of walk here with their teacher’s lesson for the day is. And now we are highlighting our seniors. Really trying to find ways to celebrate the work of our seniors and the work of our students because our students need to remember that we do care about all of them and the work they do matters.

Rico: [00:32:31] Yeah. I don’t know. It feels like the Z generation is going to be lost at some point. School’s going to be over soon. Hopefully, you know, I think at one point there was a rumor, Oh, they’re going to make us do the semester over again. I know that’s not going to happen right. But, yeah, it’s a challenge for everyone, I’m sure.

Johnathon: [00:32:54] It is. And we’ve been, we’ve been in this situation for about a month, and the good news is we’ve got about a month or greater until school gets out. So we’ve still got some time for some good learning to happen.

Rico: [00:33:06] Cool.

Alan: [00:33:07] So Jonathan, so what is, what is the end of the, yeah. What, what does graduation look like for this year’s class, for 2020?

Johnathon: [00:33:18] So I’m glad you asked that question, Alan. So we are actually getting ready to hand out caps and gowns in a no contact fashion next week. So students will actually be coming to all Gwinnett high schools on Monday through Wednesday of next week to pick up their caps and gowns and senior regalia. We’ll be doing contact list delivery right into people’s trunks as they drive through all of Gwinnett county’s high schools. The students are then gonna have the opportunity to take that regalia, put it on, and then take their best picture. I know for my daughters, that activity may take them half a day to take a picture. And so they’re going to, they’re going to be able to do that. And then from there they’ll then send the pictures into the school and working with our television and media crew at the district level, we’re putting together
a virtual graduation ceremony for each of our, each of our high schools. And that’s, that’s going to be unique and different. And the good news is we’re also planning if everything goes well, a face to face graduation in July.

Rico: [00:34:23] Wow, that would be cool. Are they getting a yearbook as well?

Johnathon: [00:34:28] They will get yearbooks, so there’ll be a yearbook pickup coming up. And so we’re learning how to do all sorts of things in new and efficient ways.

Rico: [00:34:37] That’s cool. Well we’ve, I think we’ve come to the end of our time together here. Do you want to Jonathan, do you want to share anything else at this point before we go off?

Johnathon: [00:34:52] Well, I just want to say thanks for the opportunity to come on to share a little bit of what’s going on at Paul Duke STEM. But in schools across our country and our state, you know, the opportunity that educators have to impact students has been, has been impacted by this event, by the virus. But I would say that we have shown, just like we do in a lot of situations, that the power of the human spirit is strong and that there’s a desire for people to connect. There’s a desire for those cornerstone institutions in our communities to rally around our families, our children. Those that need us the most and really be there for them. And so I’m just excited to tell a little bit of our story, but also a story that’s going on in every community around our great country.

Alan: [00:35:39] Jonathan, thank you so, so much for, for everything that you’re doing, for everything that your team’s doing and for all of the teachers and support staff in our schools that are listening. We truly are grateful for everything that you’re doing for our kids. And again for our community. And, uh, I, I agree. I think we’ll all come out stronger and more close knit community, both with our schools and again, just grateful for everything that y’all are doing.

Johnathon: [00:36:08] Yeah. Well thank you both for what y’all are doing.

Rico: [00:36:11] Thank you Jonathan hang in there with, with us for a minute while Alan and I sign off here. Alan? Want to share anything else with our audience at this point?

Alan: [00:36:20] Well, again, I just hope everybody listening and that this podcast finds them well and healthy. And for those of you that are facing challenges and sometimes extreme challenges through this, I wish you peace and strength and wish you the very best through the crisis. And I’m looking forward to moving forward together through this.

Rico: [00:36:46] Yes. Thank you Alan, and thank you Jonathan and everyone else. We look forward to the next episode at some point. Peachtree Corners Life is also airing. Continuing to do interviews. We have one tonight, by the way, with a County commission candidate. Believe it or not, there are elections going on, so we’ll be doing that and hopefully you all have received Peachtree Corners Life. Which has a cover story about rather Peachtree corners magazine,
which has a cover story about digital learning and how the schools in the area are dealing with it. So this was a good complimentary, three on one talk, if you will, about the subject. So thank you all. Appreciate it.

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Gwinnett Schools May Transition to In-Person Instruction, over several weeks



Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) announced August 4 that they will be transitioning into in-person instruction sooner than previously thought. Below is the transcript of the “Open Letter to the Community and Employees of Gwinnett County Public Schools”.

In March 2020 our world, our lives, and our work were turned upside down by a new coronavirus that had spread across our nation. Like school districts everywhere, Gwinnett County Public Schools responded quickly to keep students learning, while keeping them and their teachers safe. Amid tremendous uncertainty and constantly changing conditions, we did our best to finish the school year strong, always hoping the COVID-19 situation would improve dramatically before time to begin the new school year in August.

Today, just eight days before school starts, there is still much uncertainty surrounding this virus, and more challenges have emerged as we wrestle with determining the best plan for opening school. That decision is made harder because there is easy access to a lot of conflicting information about COVID-19 from multiple sources, while the airwaves are filled with reports about increasing cases in Gwinnett County. We must balance that information against the concerns of parents who fear for their children’s educational progress, as well as their own employment, and need for us to bring their children back to school. At the same time, we must care for our people, many of whom have understandable concerns about returning to work when they feel the virus risk remains high for them and their families.

The Gwinnett County Board of Education and I know that the decisions we make carry high stakes for our families, students, employees, and community members. That is why we have listened to you, read your emails, and reached out to you for input as we developed possible plans for the start of school. Those plans, out of necessity, have changed from time to time, but our steadfast goal has not. We have stated from the beginning of the COVID crisis that in-person instruction for every student is what we prefer and would work to achieve. That remains our primary objective, and is the focus of this letter.

We will begin to implement in-person instruction for students whose parents desire it, and do so as soon and as safely as possible. Here is what you need to know about our plans.

We announced on July 20 that, due to the increasing spread of COVID-19 in the county, our schools would open with 100% digital instruction for all students. Teachers would deliver that instruction from their school sites beginning August 12. That plan remains in effect. Simultaneously, we will take steps to gradually transition to a blend of in-person and digital learning for students, based on their parents’ choices. Our hope is that shortly after the school year starts, we can begin to honor the choices parents made in July for either in-person or digital instruction for their children. A letter confirming the parent’s choice for each child will be sent by mid-August.

Student and staff safety will be the paramount factor in determining the pace at which we will move. We plan to begin small, bringing in a limited number of grade levels at first, then adding more grades on a staggered basis. As we have done throughout the past months, we will rely on guidance from health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Georgia Department of Public Health, and the Gwinnett County Department of Public Health, as well as the Georgia Department of Education, in making that determination.

How might this plan work? The table below represents a “best-case scenario” for beginning the transition for families who want us to provide in-person instruction. Adjustments to the dates and the grade levels listed may be necessary based on the still-fluid COVID-19 situation in Gwinnett County. Regardless of the timeline, we will monitor the local conditions on a regular basis, and with guidance from our health partners, will either slow down the return to school or continue with the plan accordingly. Updates to the plan will be communicated promptly and as far in advance as possible so families and employees have time to prepare. At all times, extensive protective measures will be in place to sanitize our facilities, maintain social distance to the fullest extent possible, and make the return to school safe for children and adults. (A list of these protective measures is posted on the GCPS website.)

Our starting point for providing in-person instruction is outlined in this chart. Actual Starting Dates will be influenced by guidance from the health and educational organizations listed above.

Starting DateElementary School GradesMiddle School GradesHigh School GradesSpecial Education
August 12All grades digitalAll grades digitalAll grades digitalAll classes digital
August 26*K and 1st grade in person6th grade in person9th grade in personAll self-contained  classes in person**
September 2*K, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades in person6th and 7th grades in person9th and 10th grades in personAll self-contained classes in person**
September 9*All grades in personAll grades in personAll grades in personAll self-contained classes in person**

** Includes students who spend the majority of the day in a small-group setting: Severe/Moderate & Mild Autism; Severe/Profound, Moderate & Mild Intellectual Disabilities; Emotional-Behavioral Disabilities; ADAPT; GNETS; Visual Impairment; Moderate Visual Impairment; Orthopedic Impairment; Significant Developmentally Delayed; Specific Learning Disabilities (self-contained); Deaf/Hard of Hearing; Early Childhood Program (special needs pre-school).

School district leaders continue to hold discussions about how best to address the needs, as well as the concerns, of our students’ families and our employees. 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. We ask for your patience, understanding, and cooperation in helping us achieve a positive, safe start to the new school year for Gwinnett’s children.

J. Alvin Wilbanks, CEO/Superintendent

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What Going Back to School looks like in Gwinnett County and around Peachtree Corners



back to school with COVID19
GCPS returns to school August 12, though now for 100 percent digital learning.

In past years, the biggest worries most kids had in going back to school were if they had the coolest shoes, the right school supplies, and the best class schedule. But in the wake of Covid-19, schools are having to get creative and flexible to provide quality education in a safe and socially distanced environment. The adaptive educational approach may differ in private and public schools, some offering in-person instruction with specified health precautions or a digital learning alternative.

Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS)

Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) is scheduled to open August 12 in a 100 percent digital format, and the reopening strategy has gone through several revisions. The most recent changes were announced on August 4, which can be read about on the GCPS website and more below.

GCPS School Board Revisions

Increased political pressure and reports of a surge in Covid-19 cases put GCPS in a tough spot regarding reopening school. On July 20, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks announced that GCPS would open the 2020-21 school year on August 12 with all students receiving digital instruction.

“There is no replacement for face-to-face instruction, and that was our preferred model for next year,” said Wilbanks in a press release. “With that in mind, we offered parents an option between in-person and digital instruction in order to be responsive to their wishes for their children. However, out of an abundance of concern for our students, families, and employees, we made a very difficult decision based on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases we are seeing in our county, as well as the concerns that have been expressed by our teachers, parents, and others in the community.”

A questionnaire was sent out to parents in mid-June. It found that 43 percent of parents surveyed preferred return to in-person instruction, 34 percent preferred completely digital learning, and 23 percent preferred an option that combines in-person instruction with digital learning. Many parents have publicly called for an in-person option, which has resulted in additional opening revisions.

On August 4, Wilbanks shared plans for transitioning to a blend of in-person and digital learning for students, based on their parents’ choices. GCPS plans to begin small, bringing in a limited number of grade levels at first, then adding more grades on a staggered basis. Mr. Wilbanks’ letter to stakeholders shared that the schedule found below is a best-case scenario, and student and staff safety will be the paramount factor in determining the pace at which the district will move.

Digital Instruction begins for all students on August 12

Framework for Implementing Parents’ Choice of In-Person Instruction for their Students

Starting DateElementary School GradesMiddle School GradesHigh School GradesSpecial Education
August 12All grades digitalAll grades digitalAll grades digitalAll classes digital
August 26*K and 1st gradein person6th grade in person9th grade in personAll self-contained  classes in person**
September 2*K, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades in person6th and 7th grades in person9th and 10th grades in personAll self-contained classes in person**
September 9*All grades in personAll grades in personAll grades in personAll self-contained classes in person**

* Dates are subject to change depending on the COVID-19 conditions in Gwinnett County at that time. ** Includes students who spend the majority of the day in a small-group setting: Severe/Moderate & Mild Autism; Severe/Profound, Moderate & Mild Intellectual Disabilities; Emotional-Behavioral Disabilities; ADAPT; GNETS; Visual Impairment; Moderate Visual Impairment; Orthopedic Impairment; Significant Developmentally Delayed; Specific Learning Disabilities (self-contained); Deaf/Hard of Hearing; Early Childhood Program (special needs pre-school).

Prior to the announcement of 100 percent digital learning, pre-planning for teachers was already increased five days. In addition to traditional pre-planning activities, this extended pre-planning period will orient staff on COVID-19 prevention protocols, complete schedules for students and teachers for instructional/logistical changes and much more.

Lastly, GCPS cancelled Class of 2020 in-person graduations scheduled for July 13-19.

This is how many a classroom might look for GCPS digital learning students.

Digital Learning Expections for GCPS Students

  • Teachers will provide both live (synchronous) and recorded (asynchronous) lessons and independent work. This means that students will be required to participate in digital instruction on a specific schedule with their teachers (synchronous learning), and complete activities and assignments (asynchronous learning) on their own time to meet deadlines.
  • Students will receive quality instruction on all grade-level standards, learning the district’s Academic Knowledge and Skills (AKS) curriculum.
  • Instruction and support will be provided by teachers and staff from the student’s local school.
  • For the most part, the digital learning day will follow the same operational hours as the usual in-person school day would.
  • Students will access assignments through eCLASS C&I course pages, but teachers also may use digital resources such as Google Classroom, SAFARI Montage, etc.
  • Students will attend synchronous (live) online sessions with teachers through Zoom, Google Meet, and/or Teams Meet.
  • Schools and/or clusters will have standardized processes for where and how assignments are posted and accessed by students.
  • Teachers will provide schedules detailing which lessons will be done in synchronous sessions. Synchronous sessions will be recorded. This will allow students and parents to review the sessions and make them available to students who occasionally cannot attend a live session.
  • Schools will provide specific information to support students and parents around digital learning processes and protocols.
  • Additional student and parent support resources will be available on the district web page and in the student portal.
  • The updated GCPS Parent Portal, rolling out in August, will make it easier for parents to see assignments, including missing ones. It also will allow parents to access student information, including gradebook data, discipline, report cards, transcripts, calendars, and more.
  • Students will need access to reliable internet and devices. Sharing a device is not recommended. Parent involvement is key to successful digital learning.

Protective Measures in Schools

This is an excerpt of the overview of planned protective measures by GCPS, also outlined on August 4.

  • Families should self-screen at home. It is recommended that families take temperatures daily before going to school. Anyone with a fever of 100.4 F or higher should not go to a school site. Students and adults also should screen themselves for respiratory symptoms.
  • Students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms or a temperature of 100.4+ will be isolated and sent home.
  • All students and employees must stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms, have been in contact with someone with COVID or have symptoms and are awaiting test results, tested positive, or had close contact with a person with COVID-19 within the last 14 days.
  • For those ill, health department guidelines will be followed for return to school/work.
  • Frequent handwashing encouraged, with breaks for scheduled handwashing at ES level.
  • Ventilation systems monitored for proper operation.
  • Buses will be cleaned/disinfected after morning/afternoon routes.
  • GCPS is requiring those who attend and/or work at its schools to wear a face-covering or mask to minimize the spread, and keep students and staff members safe. Accommodations will be made for students/employees unable to wear masks for documented health reasons.
  • Schools will limit visitors; serve meals in classrooms; stagger lunch, playground, and class-change schedules; and hold meetings/events virtually as possible.
  • Where feasible, rooms will be arranged with student desks facing the same direction and students seated at tables will sit on the same side.
  • Students will be discouraged from sharing books, materials, supplies, or equipment, including devices and equipment used for athletics/PE.
  • Cafeteria keypads will be replaced with a barcode scanning system.
  • Students will have access to water but will need to provide their own container.
  • Cleaning/disinfecting of buildings, surfaces etc will be done more frequently. 
  • A distinct set of cleaning/disinfecting protocols will be implemented for situations when someone in a facility tests positive for COVID-19 or exhibits symptoms caused by COVID-19, which includes closing off affected areas.
  • Custodians will use only GCPS-approved cleaning products from the list approved for use against the SARS-CoV2 virus.
  • The district will provide a box of vinyl gloves, a bottle of Pureforce Food Contact Quat Sanitizer, a bottle of Hillyard Vindicator+ cleaner/disinfectant, and paper towels for each classroom and office, replenishing supplies as needed.


There are a number of Frequently Asked Questions coming up in response to GCPS’ announcements, some of which we will share here to elaborate on information already relayed by GCPS.

  • Will GCPS require all students and staff to be tested for COVID-19 before school starts? The health department currently does not recommend widespread testing before the start of the school year.
  • Will parents be notified if there is a positive case involving a student in their child’s class or bus? Yes, every close contact of a positive case will be notified promptly.
  • How will the district handle students who become sick at school? The school clinic will continue to serve students who feel ill at school. Each school will have an area set up (separate from the clinic) for students who have symptoms associated with COVID-19. Students will be socially distanced and monitored in that area while parents are contacted to pick them up. It’s essential that parents are aware that sick students should be kept home and that students who develop symptoms at school must be picked up promptly.
  • Will there be social distancing on school buses? No. If the district were to social distance per CDC guidelines, each 72-passenger bus could only transport 12 students at a time. GCPS does not have enough buses or drivers to accommodate this.
  • Will the school system be able to offer extracurricular activities and sports? If so, will students who choose digital learning be able to participate? The school district’s ability to continue its sports programs will be determined in large part by Georgia High School Association rules, along with guidance from health officials. If available, students will be able to participate on-site at their schools.
  • Will digital learning students be expected to be in front of a computer for six-plus hours a day? It’s not likely that students would be online in live classes the entire school day. Based on feedback, we are encouraging teachers to conduct more live (synchronous) lessons, but with the understanding that occasionally students may not be able to participate at the specified time. Therefore, teachers should record live sessions for students who need to view at a different time.
  • Will there be consistent expectations of what digital teaching looks like and how much time students will be engaged in learning? Will teachers receive additional training and support? Teachers did a great job transitioning to digital learning in the spring on short notice. Each week, teachers worked hard to improve their lessons to better engage students while at home. As the school year ended, teachers were eager for more professional learning on digital instruction. All summer, staff development has been focused on improving teachers’ effectiveness in teaching digitally. Teacher participation in these learning opportunities has been strong and we believe students will see the impact daily in their lessons. Multiple resources and supports, such as sample lessons and technology training, are available to all teachers and schools will assure teachers are using these resources as they plan lessons.
  • Will digital learners get access to physical textbooks? For many courses, students will be assigned a physical textbook. Local schools will issue these books to all students.  Other courses where textbooks are issued in class sets, the district Curriculum and Instruction offices will assist teachers in developing lessons that utilize high-quality resources that can be accessed digitally. Additionally, there will be a limited number of classroom textbooks that can be checked out by students.
  • Will there be opportunities for one-on-one attention?  Students will be provided opportunities to receive one-on-one attention. Teachers will expect students to follow a specific schedule because after-hours support will be limited.
  • Will there be separate teachers for digital and in-person teaching? Principals will staff their schools based on how many students choose digital versus in-person instruction. There may be some teachers (particularly middle and high school levels) who teach both.
  • How is the school district addressing internet access issues? GCPS encourages families to take advantage of existing no and low-cost Internet services provided by commercial carriers. The district maintains a list of these providers available on the GCPS website. If your family is unable to make use of one of these plans, contact your local school, which will have a limited number of hotspots available for check out. “In the spring, the school district checked out Chromebooks to families in need and we will continue that this fall,” said Sloan Roach, GCPS Executive Director of Communications and Public Relations.

Ms. Roach also stated in regards to safety guidelines at elementary, middle, and high school levels that GCPS will “emphasize these messages with students and staff at all levels in different ways… signage, announcements, etc.”

Additional Responses from Schools

Paul Duke Stem High School held an administrative meeting virtually, smiles all around. Photo courtesy of Paul Duke’s Facebook page

Though every GCPS must follow county guidelines, each individual school might have a slightly altered approach to how that looks in their environment. Paul Duke Stem High School, for example, sent out a special video message to students and parents to help them make the decision that best suits their learning. This was prior to the 100 percent digital announcement and additional revisions.

“At Paul Duke STEM, we want to help our students and families make the best possible decision. This video was recorded by our Principal, Dr. Wetherington to help you in your decision. We hope you have a great and safe summer!”

Like many schools, Paul Duke STEM HS in a state of flux, quickly adapting to the GCPS announcements and changes. To help ease some of the burden on their community, the school has a comprehensive collection of Covid-19 assistance resources on its website to help parents and students cope both academically and personally. It’s nice to see a public school really going the extra mile to care for their student body and their families.

Private Schools Response

Private schools in the Peachtree Corners area are making their own paths to suit their student bodies, some with all in-person instruction, some digital and some in combination.

Cornerstone Christian Academy has invested in acrylic barriers to limit potential exposure.

Cornerstone Christian Academy set their first day for August 12. Principal Colin Creel sent a letter to families to the effect that due to Cornerstone’s size and ability to be flexible, Cornerstone will resume a fully in-person instruction model unless forced to go digital. Needed adjustments were announced on July 20. Some main adjustments are listed below.

  • Flexibility: This plan is fluid based on current current CDC and American Association of Pediatrics school opening guidelines. The Cornerstone website will be the most current resource.
  • Physical Barriers: Cornerstone has made a substantial investment in acrylic panels to minimize the duration of potential exposure for our community instead of requiring students to wear masks within the classroom during instruction.
  • Average Class Sizes: Lower School – 14  Middle School – 17
  • Synchronous Learning: In the event a student or part of a class is quarantined and the remainder of the class/grade remains in school, we will offer synchronous learning. Synchronous learning means quarantined students would receive the same instruction (as much as possible) as those onsite. Cornerstone purchased numerous iPads for this purpose. In addition, Cornerstone will equip teachers with wireless microphones to ensure proper sound. This option will only be implemented during a partial class quarantine. If the whole class is quarantined, digital learning will be utilized.
  • Cleaning:  Cornerstone has increased their cleaning budget and protocols. The biggest difference will include disinfectant fogging which will occur at night.
  • Visitors: Non-essential visitors will be limited during school hours. All essential visitors must wear face coverings, have their temperature checked and complete a COVID-19 questionnaire prior to entering the building.

“All of the data suggests it is best for students to receive live instruction. We are planning for mini-closures here and there where we would switch to digital learning. Digital Learning will look very similar to last spring. Our principals did an excellent job adapting to meeting the needs of our community. In addition, at the end of the year we gave a survey to our parents to see how we could improve as well as had a live zoom meeting with about 30 parents to receive live feedback as well,” Creel said.

Creel does not underestimate the challenges Cornerstone and others faced and will continue to face in the upcoming school year.

“The biggest challenge we faced was engaging our K-1 students while not imposing too much on the parents. Thus, we piloted a digital learning platform, SeeSaw, with our second grade students in late spring. This platform was amazingly effective. Thus, all of our Lower School teachers have been trained on the platform this summer. Our Middle School already had multiple digital platforms in place,” Creel said.

Wesleyan School 2020 graduates represented as cardboard cutouts in a moving tribute. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan’s Facebook page.

Wesleyan School is also slated to open August 12 in its Lower and Middle School for their first full day. High school at Wesleyan starts on August 13 for their first full day. This is the intended plan unless other mitigating health and safety concerns arise. They are also offering an entirely virtual option, as well as a hybrid on-campus model adapted to all grades to limit exposure. If you are a Wesleyan family that wants to take advantage of the virtual learning model, indicate your choice by completing the form online no later than Monday, August 3.

“It will be exciting to be together once again on campus this fall; however, we should be realistic that some things will be different. I am confident we can work together as a community to create a school environment that is safe while also providing as much of the Wesleyan experience as possible for you and your children,” said Head of School Chris Cleveland in a Back to School announcement

On June 29, Cleveland released Wesleyan’s detailed distance learning plan that “while it is our hope that we never use this plan, we want to be as prepared as possible to adapt to any scenario.”

Wesleyan families were asked to complete an initial interest survey no later than July 17 to indicate whether they would prefer their child(ren) to begin the school year on campus or in an online blended learning model. Click here for the full Campus Re-Opening Plan.

The hybrid model of on-campus learning at Wesleyan is well-thought out.

Grades K-4 will be on campus in a hybrid model for the first two days of school, August 12 and 13, and then all students in grades K-4 will be on campus beginning Friday, August 14. This means that approximately half of the lower school will report to campus on Wednesday, August 12, and the other half will report on Thursday, August 13. We will provide two identical first day of school experiences to welcome and orient children in smaller groups before all K-4 students will be on campus together on Friday, August 14. 

Grade 5 will begin the school year on campus on August 12. Due to their age, the unique transition from lower to middle school, as well as the steep learning curve with new technology, all 5th-grade students will be on campus every day through August 28, at which time this plan will be re-evaluated.

Grades 6-12 will open in a hybrid model on August 12 for students in grades 6-8 and on August 13 for students in grades 9-12.  They will divide middle and high school students into two evenly distributed groups, alphabetically by last name to keep families together, and each group will be on campus every other day. The group that is not on campus will connect live into the classroom to stay on-track with their classes and teachers. They will remain in this model for the first two full weeks of school (Friday, August 28) and then re-evaluate the status of the COVID-19 virus in the community and the effectiveness of the health and safety measures we are implementing. It is the goal to have all students on campus as soon as safely possible.

Friends, family, and teachers cheered on graduating Class of 2020 seniors at Greater Atlanta Christian School car parade. Photo courtesy of GAC’s Facebook page.

Greater Atlanta Christian School has decided to utilize the extensive technology at its disposal to implement Synchronous Learning, real-time digital learning that allows students at home to fully participate. This will launch August 10, GAC’s official opening day.

Smart cameras, directional microphones, and interactive whiteboards will enable “at-home” students to be more fully integrated into their normal schedule’s real-time classroom, and with their teacher and classmates. The cutting-edge technology offers families on-going flexibility while not compromising on a robust education complete with class collaboration and content sharing.

“So, if a student has to be quarantined because they have been exposed to the virus, then they don’t miss out on the daily interaction with their normal classes.  Or, if the family needs to be away from Atlanta, then the student can still have the ability to log in and continue their normal day’s classes.  Or, if a student is part of a competition that requires them to be out of town, then they can still be a part of their daily classwork, but later watch the recordings of any classes they have missed,” said Margie Asef, Director of Community Relations.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it also provides our families the ability to choose to keep their students home the amount of time they prefer.

“For the past several months, a team of GAC senior leaders, school-level administrators, and lead teachers have been working to transform our K-12 learning spaces so that classes can be taught face-to-face and online, simultaneously,” shared Dr. Scott Harsh in an email to school families last week.

We at Peachtree Corners Magazine will continue to keep you up to date as we continue to receive new information during this time of transition. We wish all students and families in our community a safe, healthy return to school, full of happy and productive learning.

*This article has been updated due to Gwinnett County policy revisions and may continue to be updated.


Gwinnett County Public Schools

Cornerstone Christian Academy

Greater Atlanta Christian School

Wesleyan School

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Beginning Aug 12, Gwinnett Schools Moves to All-Digital Learning



Gwinnett County Distance Learning

On July 20, 2020, CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks announced that Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) will open the 2020-21 school year on August 12 with all students receiving digital instruction. Although the district had planned to begin with both in-person and digital instruction, the current COVID-19 situation required a change in those plans. 

“There is no replacement for face-to-face instruction, and that was our preferred model for starting the school year,” said Superintendent Wilbanks. “With that in mind, we offered parents an option between in-person and digital instruction in order to be responsive to their wishes for their children. However, out of an abundance of concern for our students, families, and employees, we made a very difficult decision based on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases we are seeing in our county, as well as the concerns that have been expressed by our teachers, parents, and others in the community.”

GCPS leaders will continue to gather information from health officials and monitor the still-fluid COVID-19 situation in Gwinnett County. That information will help determine when the district can safely open for in-person instruction.

During the spring and summer, school system staff have worked diligently to improve the digital learning experience for students. Summer staff development has focused primarily on effective teaching in a digital environment. Content specialists created digital lessons and provided instructional resources to help teachers better serve students.

Digital instruction this fall will look very different than it did in the spring. Expectations for teachers and students will be consistent with those for in-person instruction. The digital school day will follow a daily schedule. School attendance will be expected and documented. And, students will receive grades and will take assessments to measure their learning.

Teachers will report to their schools to deliver their digital lessons, participate in staff development, and collaborate with their fellow teachers to make digital instruction more effective for their students. For some employees, reporting to school may be difficult for a number of reasons. Principals will work with the staff members at their school to address individual concerns and make accommodations where possible. Those who are allowed to work from home will be expected to come to the school periodically to work with other school staff and leaders.

With the move to 100% digital learning, GCPS leaders continue to address the challenges that we know exist in terms of student access to devices and reliable internet connections. The district will check out Chromebooks and internet hotspots to students, based on need, to ensure equitable access to quality digital learning.

“This is not the beginning of the school year we had hoped for; however, it was a possibility we planned for, knowing that keeping students and staff safe had to be a priority,” said Mr. Wilbanks. “We are confident we can do digital learning well, thanks to the quality teachers and leaders we have in this district, the comprehensive preparation over the last four months, and our steadfast commitment to do what’s best for Gwinnett students.”

Details for the 2020-21 school year will continue to be shared on the district website and in SchoolMessenger updates, including plans for a return to in-school instruction once that is possible. Click here for more on digital learning in the fall.

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