Memphis students can return to classrooms in January, but some teachers may still be working virtually

Girl wearing a mask works on her laptop at a learning center.

Shelby County Schools students could return to their classrooms in January hoping for  in-person learning, only to have their teacher on the other side of a computer screen instead of in the same room. Just like students, teachers can choose to work from school buildings or from home.

Keith Williams, leader of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, wants teachers to have a choice about whether to work from their classrooms, especially if they or members of their households are at high risk for complications from COVID-19. But he acknowledges that students may be sitting in school buildings still looking at their teacher through a screen — a method that educators agree isn’t ideal for most students.

“You’re getting the same instruction at home. Why risk getting on the bus” or going back into buildings? said Williams. 

Superintendent Joris Ray’s plan, unveiled Monday, gives the same flexibility to teachers as it does to parents: They can choose face-to-face or virtual learning, no questions asked. Some districts across the nation require teachers to prove they are at higher risk of dying from the coronavirus, or that they live with someone who is at high risk before allowing them to work from home. 

Still, district leaders are banking on Memphis teachers to work from their classrooms when 90,000 students have the option to return to buildings in January so students aren’t learning through a screen.

“We’re encouraging and we’re welcoming our teachers back into the buildings because we know that it is safe to do so,” Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman, told reporters Tuesday. “But we just want to remain flexible in giving them the option to teach from home. But certainly the goal is to have face-to-face learning.”

While teachers are being given a choice, support staff are not. If a teacher opts to work from home, another adult in the building, such as an educational assistant or behavior specialist, will be required to come in and monitor the class while the teacher teaches from the screen. The district wants to keep students with their same teacher when buildings reopen and continue to use Microsoft Teams, a video conferencing platform. 

Angela Whitelaw, a deputy superintendent, said support staff will be required to return to buildings when they open for students unless they have a medical reason not to.  

“We definitely know the monitors will be back. However, we do understand if someone has an underlying condition, then we will be working with that particular person,” Whitelaw said Tuesday.

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 that may change if more students return to the classroom. Teacher and parent surveys to find out which option they prefer are going out this week so district leaders can plan for staffing in November and December. 

Since the beginning of the school year in late August, Ray commended teachers who decided to teach from school buildings even though classes were online. He lauded Highland Oaks Middle School on the first day of school where he met with reporters because all 40 teachers were working from the building. 

Danette Stokes, the president of United Education Association of Shelby County, said she wasn’t sure of the best way to match parents and teachers, but she was glad to have a plan that gave teachers a choice. 

“Teacher choice is just as important as student and parent choice because we all want the same thing and that’s to be safe,” Stokes said. 

But she also doubted that the trend of coronavirus cases would allow for the plan to go into motion in January, which is a possibility the superintendent is considering. 

“I’m glad the superintendent has come out with something as a guide, but it can change,” she said. “And that’s what we do in the classroom, we adjust based on the needs.”

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