Memphis schools delay return to classrooms as COVID-19 cases surge

School leaders in Memphis announced Friday they’ll delay bringing students back into classrooms until February because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in Shelby County.

Shelby County Schools had planned to start reopening schools on Jan. 4 after teaching virtually throughout the first semester.

The state’s largest district now plans to reopen classrooms on Feb. 8 for elementary-age students and Feb. 22 for grades 6-12 as the second semester begins.

“We recognize the pandemic presents a growing set of challenges for all our principals, teachers, support staff, families and students,” Superintendent Joris Ray said in a statement. “During times like this, our faith can be tested, and it can be hard to imagine brighter days. But, I know we can get through this as we work together on behalf of our children.”

Ray has been under pressure from state leaders to reopen Memphis classrooms, most recently after White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week that school buildings should be open during the pandemic. But Ray has stood firm and called for flexibility based on local spread of the virus. He previously said the plan to reopen schools in January was contingent on the local status of the public health crisis.

Shelby County currently has more than 53,000 coronavirus cases, with a seven-day average exceeding 450 new cases per day during the last two weeks, according to the local health department.

A district-wide survey of parents and students released earlier this week showed little appetite for returning to Memphis classrooms. Less than a third of students were expected to come back for in-person learning with the new year.

When buildings do reopen, all students will still be learning online as educators deliver instruction through a laptop or tablet. Less than a fifth of teachers say they’re willing to go back into classrooms.

Gov. Bill Lee said he was “disappointed” about the delay and wants families in Memphis to at least have an option for their children to learn in person.

“We know how hard it is to open a school district in a way that protects teachers and students, but we know it can be done because we’re three months into this,” he told reporters when asked about Ray’s decision.

Lee added: “I believe in local decision-making. Nevertheless, I wish the children in Shelby County were in person in classrooms in a greater way than they are today.”

However, one Memphis community leader countered that even February may be too soon for a return. Beverly Davis, who leads a parent council of neighborhood schools, said the way cases are rising, she would rather continue virtual learning. 

“You have some parents who love it and you have some parents who absolutely hate it,” Davis said of remote learning. “It falls back on the focus of the child.”

In recent days, Ray huddled individually with school board members on the matter. A news release said the board supports his decision amid an upward trend in cases.

“We know that our families were looking forward to our schools reopening and we understand the importance of returning to the classroom,” said Miska Clay Bibbs, the board’s chairwoman. “We hope our community recognizes that this decision has been made in the best interest of health and safety for our students and employees.”

All other school districts across Tennessee have at least partially reopened school buildings, though many have intermittently closed when COVID-19 has caused staffing shortages.

Leaders of the district’s two teacher unions applauded Ray’s decision. 

“People are afraid of this virus,” said Danette Stokes, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County. “But like most people, the concern is, ‘I can’t put my family in a situation to be exposed to coronavirus because I’m at work.’ And apparently parents are feeling the same way.”

The announcement was a relief to Jolie Madihalli, the president of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. 

“January is just a couple of weeks away and the numbers are rising. I was very concerned,” she said. 

She said many employees who would have been required to go back to classrooms have underlying conditions that make them more at risk of dying from COVID-19 or are caring for family members who are. 

Madihalli acknowledged virtual learning is not ideal, but also noted nothing about this year is ideal.

“Most students across the country aren’t getting what they deserve this year because we’re in a pandemic,” she said.

Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from Gov. Bill Lee, parent leader Beverly Davis, and leaders of Memphis’ two teacher associations.

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