Shelby County Schools plans for January return starting with youngest students

A teacher crosses an otherwise empty hallway with stickers on the floor promoting social distancing
Superintendent Joris Ray announced students can start returning to school buildings Jan. 4 pending favorable COVID-19 trends based on revised district thresholds. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Update, Nov. 5, 2020: Shelby County Schools now plans to phase in students with disabilities by their grade starting on Jan. 4 with prekindergarten to fifth grade.

Superintendent Joris Ray wants all students in Shelby County Schools to return to school buildings in January in two phases, but left open the possibility to delay the start dates.

First, students in prekindergarten through fifth grade and students with disabilities would have the option for in-person learning every day starting Jan. 4. Middle and high school students would return about two weeks later on Jan. 19. 

In-person instruction would be optional for both students and teachers, similar to when the district announced its initial re-entry plan in June. Parents can change their choice starting Oct. 21 until Oct. 30. Students whose parents do not make a choice will default to in-person learning. Optional COVID-19 nasal swab testing would be available for students and staff, Ray said.

“We are ready to go when it’s safe to go,” he told school board members Monday during a committee meeting. The district expects to decide in early November about resuming spring sports, according to Monday’s presentation.

The long-awaited announcement comes as top Tennessee officials have urged districts to open their buildings and give parents an option for in-person instruction. All of the district’s estimated 90,000 Memphis students started the school year online on Aug. 31. By the end of the month, Shelby County Schools will be the only district in Tennessee that has not reopened buildings to at least some students.

Under the superintendent’s plan, students would keep their same teacher whether they continue online or return to school buildings using Microsoft Teams, a video conferencing platform. District leaders are eager to open buildings for in-person learning because it is more effective than online instruction, especially for younger students. Also, parents have complained about children spending up to six hours in front of a computer screen. But even some students in buildings will continue learning online. If the teacher is working from home, an adult would be present with students in the building to monitor. 

School board members generally supported the plan, but were divided on what was needed to ensure the plan would stick. 

Three board members suggested a small group of school buildings open in November to work through early problems. The first phase in the superintendent’s plan would make in-person learning available to at least half of students, according to last year’s district enrollment data.

Superintendent Joris Ray (Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal)

“Does that not better serve us to think about that moving forward with a group of our students before the end of the calendar year instead of trying to work through all of those with students in January?” asked board member Shante Avant. “There are parents and students who are ready for in-person learning now.”

Ray said he wants the plan to apply to everyone in the same way. 

“I want to do it in a way that no one feels that they’ve been left out or... they feel we’re doing something to them instead of doing something for them,” he said.

Other board members said the district should be open to changing the January date depending on the spread of the coronavirus in Shelby County. 

Ray said students will not be required to return to buildings until:

  • The daily number of new coronavirus cases is fewer than 100 for two weeks.
  • The rate of coronavirus cases and total tests is less than 5% for two weeks.
  • The percent of intensive care unit hospital beds in use is less than 80% for two weeks.

Based on those numbers, students would not be required to return in person if the start date was this week. Cases are increasing locally and nationally.

Board member Stephanie Love said parents will need detailed logistics, such as how bus transportation would work and what coronavirus testing would look like, before they choose which learning option is best for them. 

“Parents need to know everything, every step of the way,” she said. “I don’t think we can do a survey about this without providing every single detail from the time they walk out of the house.”

Ray said many of the logistics in the district’s plan from this summer still stand, but acknowledged that he couldn’t answer all the questions board members had. 

“We’ve checked and rechecked and tried to think of all the hiccups and whatever. And even when we do that we still will have 100,000 more questions and aha moments,” he said.

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board members.

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