Gwinnett students return to in-person learning in phases with masks required

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — It’s a new year under new leadership in the state’s largest school district as Gwinnett County Public Schools head back to school Wednesday.

The district will phase in in-person classes for the second year in a row. Kindergarten, 1st, 6th and 9th graders start Wednesday in buildings. On Thursday, 2nd, 3rd, 7th and 10th graders will return. The rest of Gwinnett students head back Monday.

While the youngest in each building will actually report to their classes Wednesday, all 180,000 students should be in class. The older students will return online today. Masks will be required in buildings.

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As Gwinnett students return this week, they will have a new leader for the first time in 25 years.

Calvin Watts takes over as the district’s superintendent. Watts replaces J. Alvin Wilbanks, who was forced out by a new school board this summer.

Watts was previously an assistant superintendent for GCPS before he left six years ago.

“My leadership philosophy has always been to reach and teach all children as if they had my last name. Now , my wife and I will soon have nearly 180,000 children,” Watts said.

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Watts takes over just as COVID-19 numbers are returning. A mask mandate was put back in place just days before he was hired. All students, staff and visitors must wear masks inside school buildings again.

“I do know there certainly is a controversy that exists. Anytime you have differences of opinion, my goal is to make sure we have as much information,” Watts said.

The mandate has led to split reactions by parents. Some parents say it’s unsafe for their kids to wear masks every day. Other parents say they are willing to put up with the hassle, believing it will shorten the pandemic.

More than 80,000 Gwinnett students still aren’t eligible for the vaccine, which has only been approved for children 12 and older.

Thomas asked school officials if they also planned on social distancing.

“With everyone back in school that’s going to be hard to do. So wearing masks makes that even more important so we can help stop the spread,” spokesperson Sloan Roach told Thomas.

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