If coronavirus cases continue spiking, Ray says he cannot ‘in good faith’ open school buildings

Superintendent Joris Ray speaks with reporters in 2020. He stands behind a podium in a gray suit and glasses.
Superintendent Joris Rays speaks with reporters during a press conference about the district’s school reopening plan on July 6, 2020. (Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

If coronavirus hospitalizations and cases continue to surge, Memphis students will start the school year online, Superintendent Joris Ray said Friday. 

“If we are where we are today, in good faith I could not open schools,” the Shelby County Schools leader told Chalkbeat. “And when I say open schools, I’m talking about in person.”

For now, the plan for parents to choose between in-person and online instruction still stands. Parents have until July 18 to decide. But Ray emphasized he plans to be flexible based on how the virus is spreading closer to the first day of school. That’s despite President Donald Trump’s suggestion to slash education funding if districts do not open school buildings in the fall. 

“I’m not going to cave in to any political pressure at the national level or any threats around having in-person instruction if our data and our numbers here say something different,” Ray said. 

This week, Tennessee has seen its highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 since April. And hospital capacity in Memphis has reached 90%, the highest since the pandemic began. In Nashville on Thursday, the school district announced plans to move all instruction online for the first month of school because of dramatic increases in coronavirus cases. 

Shelby County Schools’ reopening plan includes preparing students to learn fully online at some point during the year if conditions worsen, but many of the details are still being determined. Ray has already proposed moving the first day of school from Aug. 10 to Aug. 31 because the governor extended the state of emergency. The school board is scheduled to vote on the proposal Monday. And Thursday, the district announced in-person graduation ceremonies scheduled for this month would move online “given the steady rise in COVID-19 cases in Shelby County.”

If the district does move all instruction online in August, there won’t be enough new laptops and tablets for students. The school board approved a four-year $11 million lease in June and the new devices are scheduled to start arriving this month. So, Ray said Friday that the district could distribute both new devices and its existing inventory if buildings do not reopen for the first day of school. 

The district has also purchased mobile hotspots for families that do not have access to the internet. Some have already been distributed to students in summer school.

Ray noted he would be “firm” on protecting the safety of students and staff, even if it meant delaying opening buildings. School buildings have been closed since March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

“And actually now the numbers are far worse than they were in March and we shut down then,” he said.

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