Shelby County Schools board members aren’t ready to reopen school buildings anytime soon.
Chalkbeat talked to seven of the nine school board members this week to hear their thoughts on reopening buildings to about 90,000 students. Three of them said January is the earliest they feel comfortable reopening school buildings, especially as county health officials this week declared the virus’ autumn “surge” has arrived.
Others said they want to see a plan for COVID-19 testing in schools along with survey data on how many parents and teachers want to stick with virtual learning or return to buildings before the district announces a date.
School board member Michelle Robinson McKissack speaks to counterparts from across the state in 2018. Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat
“There is not a day that has gone by that this has not consumed my thoughts and conversations,” said board member Michelle Robinson McKissack. “I feel in a sense one way, one day, and one day, another way. And it’s all about managing what’s best for the majority. It’s so challenging.”
The school board has said little publicly about what they think reopening should look like while parents, students, and teachers have waited for answers. Board members noted that students learn better in person. They also are concerned about the safety of students and teachers when they return to buildings.
Board members said Superintendent Joris Ray has approached them individually to hear their thoughts, but the decision will ultimately come from him. In the past three weeks, he has alluded to a gradual reopening of buildings with young students returning first, similar to how Nashville started phasing in this week. Board members generally agreed with that approach. But Ray hasn’t publicly presented a plan or timeline for that to happen. Miska Clay Bibbs, the board’s chairwoman, said she expects to hear more details during the board’s academics committee meeting Monday.
Other large districts across the nation have already floated plans to return to buildings if they started the year online, but some, like Denver, have backtracked as rates of infection increase. In Shelby County, which includes Memphis and the surrounding suburbs, the health department has reported 3,238 children with coronavirus, which is double the number of cases since late July before some schools reopened their buildings. Children make up 10% of the county’s cases, up from 9% reported in late July and about 4% in late April.
National studies have indicated that younger children are less likely to contribute to coronavirus spreading. But based on local health department data, Shelby County is between moderate and highest risk of transmitting the disease in schools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district, is one of three school systems in the state that is still educating all its students online. Neighboring Fayette County, with about 3,500 students, plans to return to buildings Oct. 26 while Richard City in southeast Tennessee, with fewer than 300 students, plans to return Monday, said a state education department spokeswoman. Suburban districts near Memphis are giving parents the option of in-person or online instruction for their children or doing a combination of both.
But board members said Shelby County Schools should not be compared with most Tennessee districts because most Memphis students come from poor families and have different challenges.
Shelby County school board chairwoman Miska Clay Bibbs reads to students at Newberry Elementary in October 2019.Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat
Bibbs said many students live in households with their grandparents, who are more at risk of dying from the coronavirus. And if they need to quarantine at home, it’s harder to do that in an apartment compared with larger homes more common in the suburbs, she said.
“We’re not only taking care of our kids, we’re taking care of our families as well,” Bibbs said.
Board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman added that readily available health care is harder to come by in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, especially as pandemic-related job loss is still prevalent.
“Until we can get universal health care that every child — no matter who we are — can get health care, this is the problem we’ll have,” she said.
Board members acknowledged that some parents are frustrated with virtual learning, especially for early grades, but noted that returning to school buildings creates its own problems. The district gave teachers the option of working from home or from their school building during virtual learning. When students return to buildings, all school board members Chalkbeat talked to said they want to continue providing that option to teachers.
As of mid-September, nearly half of teachers were working from school buildings, while about 37% were working from home; 17% were doing a combination of both. But teachers may change their minds when hundreds of students are added to buildings.
“We have to have students and we have to have teachers who are going back into buildings in order to have a successful learning space,” said board member Kevin Woods.
Board member Sheleah Harris said that teachers should be able to choose which setting works for them and their families without fear of repercussions.
“Our responsibility is to make sure those options are safe,” she said.
School board member Shante Avant at Central High School in 2018.Caroline Bauman / Chalkbeat
Board member Shante Avant said she would be more comfortable holding classes in person if the city government could expand its COVID-19 testing program to Shelby County Schools. Currently, only 14 private and charter schools are participating. The district has almost 150 schools, 6,000 teachers, and an estimated 90,000 students.
“We’ve got to be more diligent about our schools than we do the bars,” when considering reopening strategies for the city’s businesses and institutions, she said. Tiffany Collins, the city’s project manager for the school testing program, said Thursday that the city is prepared to expand whenever Shelby County Schools reopens buildings.
Board member Althea Greene said the district could aim for January and then monitor virus conditions after the winter holidays, because “people are out and families are gathering no matter what health departments are recommending.”
No matter what, the process will be difficult, Avant said.
“It’s not as easy as flipping on a switch,” she said. “We have to be thorough, intentional, safe, and smart about the health and wellbeing of both our students and our teachers.”