‘You can’t educate dead kids’: 80 gather to protest in-person instruction in Memphis

Lisa Bennett has been teaching in Memphis schools for more than 20 years and has never felt unsafe about entering a school building until now. 

She was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and has asthma — both of which put her at a higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. She coaches teachers at Cordova High School and said she’s not aware of an option to work from home this fall. She’s also worried about students who will learn in person with similar conditions, even though their parents have the choice for them to learn virtually. 

“It’s just not worth the risk to force ourselves into a building,” Bennett said. “You can’t educate dead kids.”  

About 80 teachers and supporters who share her concerns rallied in front of Shelby County Schools central office on Tuesday afternoon. Donning masks and bringing lawn chairs and signs to the parking lot, participants chanted “Education is a right. This is why we have to fight,” and “Whose schools? Our schools!”

After the rally, Superintendent Joris Ray said he’s looking into at-home options for teachers. 

“Just as we have promised our families flexibility in the learning options available for students this fall, please know I am committed to providing the same flexibility to our educators regarding the opportunity to teach remotely,” he said in a statement.

The Memphis protest echoes a growing call from teachers to start the school year online as coronavirus cases rise nationwide. A recent study of nearly 65,000 people in South Korea showed that children over age 10 spread the coronavirus as easily as adults do. Several large districts have already switched to all students learning online, while others are still planning for at least some in-person instruction. 

Ray has said if coronavirus cases continue to surge, all Memphis students will start the 2020-21 school year online. Rally leaders supported Ray’s position, but emphasized that they want to see no new cases for 14 days before school buildings reopen. 

Some of the teachers present said they will “refuse” to return to school buildings if they don’t feel safe. Memphis-Shelby United, a new coalition of parent, teacher, activist, and student groups, hosted the rally and is collecting signatures on an online petition for Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. The petition had nearly 1,000 supporters Tuesday evening. 

“There is nowhere teachers would rather be in the fall than in their classrooms with their students,” the petition read. “However, with COVID-19 numbers spiking, the cracks caused by years of underfunding education are beginning to show.”

The group’s demands for the upcoming school year are:

  • Conduct all online classes until there are no new coronavirus cases or 14 days
  • Waive statewide testing 
  • Suspend teacher evaluations
  • Waive exam exemption rules for high school students
  • Hold schools harmless for testing requirements
  • Pay hourly school employees such as bus drivers, custodial staff, nutrition staff, and secretaries

Laura Braytenbah, a teacher at Snowden School, said teachers often provide what the district and state doesn’t for their classrooms.

“We are so used to filling that gap ourselves. But this time we can’t,” she said of providing sufficient protective equipment and hand sanitizer. 

District officials are purchasing hand sanitizing stations for hallways and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is providing masks for staff and students. But those familiar with building maintenance and cleaning in Memphis schools said they are skeptical the supplies will last. 

Pam Bergsmith, a first-grade teacher at Raleigh-Bartlett Meadows Elementary, said her building often doesn’t have hot water and regularly runs out of hand soap and paper towels. 

“They don’t have enough manpower,” Bergsmith said. She supports teachers having the option to teach online from home rather than logging on to class from the school building. In a statement Tuesday evening, Ray said, “just as we have promised our families flexibility in the learning options available for students this fall, please know I am committed to providing the same flexibility to our educators regarding the opportunity to teach remotely.”

Betty Jones, a 17-year Memphis teacher, said she presumably contracted COVID-19 in March before testing was available. She said even though she no longer has the disease, she still feels extreme fatigue and coughs. She said Shelby County Schools leaders and school board members should lead by example if they believe in-person instruction is safe. 

“If they’re not meeting in person, why is it such a good idea for students to meet in person?” she said.

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