Half days, online lessons, smaller classes: Memphis leaders considering what schools will look like this fall

Students work on laptop computers in a classroom at Gardenview Elementary School in Memphis.

Every morning at 8, Shelby County Schools officials meet to discuss various scenarios for how the district will educate its nearly 100,000 students next year. 

Smaller classes? Half-day sessions? Remote online learning?

The coronavirus has forced school districts across the nation to address a host of pandemic-related needs to ensure the safety of students and teachers when classes resume in the fall while also trying to address the loss of instructional time due to school closures this year. Scenarios also include contingencies for what happens if schools don’t reopen in the fall, or if they open and then close again if coronavirus infections increase. 

One district outside of Denver may allow parents to choose to send their students to a school building or take online classes. Chicago schools may alternate days for students to come to school buildings. Denver is considering a mix of in-person and online instruction.

Shelby County Schools officials gave a first look into some of the options being discussed during a budget presentation this week before county commissioners.

“For safety, we’re thinking about digital thermometers, PPEs or personal protective equipment, handwashing, sanitizing supplies, training,” said Toni Williams, finance director.

She noted that the needs change every day “as we’re learning more and more and becoming educated about how everyone is addressing this pandemic.”

Related: Will schools be able to reopen in the fall? Fauci says answer will be ‘very different’ across the country

Superintendent Joris Ray is expected to write an opinion piece in local newspapers this weekend outlining the options his administration is weighing for how students and staff will return to buildings in the fall. Proposals for the school board to consider are scheduled to be announced Monday, a district spokeswoman said.

Next year school officials also plan to provide digital devices and internet access to all 95,000 students and 6,000 teachers. Ray said that the district will train teachers as well as students and parents on how to use the online platforms. 

“It’s not about just pushing devices out, not having teachers properly trained,” Ray said. 

An advisory committee is expected to provide a final recommendation on a technology plan in coming days.

The district is contemplating a number of scenarios for social distancing based on health department recommendations. “This is a new normal that’s why we’re pushing so hard for the digital devices, just in case we can’t go in person in the fall,” Ray said.

But should classes resume in school buildings, officials are considering the logistics necessary for social distancing, such as staggered school days where certain grades would go on certain days, splitting classes into half-day sessions and running more bus routes. 

“We’re going to do what’s best for students and safety is No. 1,” Ray said.

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