Ophelia Robinson had just gotten cable and internet service installed when she learned Monday that Shelby County Schools would be starting all classes remotely this school year. She had recently ordered a desk, too, so her granddaughter would be prepared to do schoolwork online at home should she need to.
But Robinson’s family had wanted her granddaughter, who is entering the 11th grade at Oakhaven High, to attend school in person this year. “We had chosen in-school because we know that’s how my granddaughter would be able to learn. But now we don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s just a blessing that we already had an order in to get internet connected.”
Superintendent Joris Ray announced Monday that all schools would open virtually Aug. 31 and remain virtual until further notice. As coronavirus cases continue to increase countywide, Ray said he didn’t feel he could safely reopen school buildings next month.
The district also reported that 80% of parents agreed and had chosen the virtual learning option for their children.
Robinson said she understands the call to keep school buildings closed and supports the decision. Still, she’s concerned about how it will work, how students will be kept engaged, how parents will navigate the different online programs, and especially how her gregarious granddaughter will fare at home away from friends and in the same household where her sister is expecting a baby in just a few days.
Whether school buildings should reopen in the fall is a hotly debated topic nationwide. Many parents and teachers have pushed back about holding in-person classes.
Meanwhile, President Trump has threatened to withhold or reduce federal aid to districts that choose remote learning.
Gov. Bill Lee sidestepped the issue when asked Monday if Tennessee districts such as Memphis and Nashville could be penalized in the next round of federal coronavirus relief for not having in-person classes.
“We’re going to support every school district in our state, but we do believe kids should go back in person,” he said.
School board member Michelle McKissak took to Twitter to express support for the all-virtual plan. “As a Shelby County Schools board member representing District 1 and as a mom of two children who had registered for in-person learning at SCS this year, I support 100% the decision to make learning All-Virtual. The science dictates that this is best for students and educators,” she tweeted.
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“I’m happy with the decision the superintendent made,” said Phyllis Whitney-Ousley, a teacher whose daughter is in the eighth grade at Colonial Middle School. “We’ve had five months to prepare for either choice, plan B now for those who didn’t choose virtual,” she said referring to the fact that campuses have been shut down since March because of the coronavirus.
Whitney-Ousley’s family had chosen the virtual learning option despite her daughter missing her friends. Whitney-Ousley also said her daughter told her that she knew it wasn’t worth the health risk. “She can still see them via Facebook or Zoom — that’s what this generation does anyway.”
Kaleb Sy, a rising 10th grader at East T-STEM Academy High School, said he hopes there will be small virtual classes and more student-teacher interaction that there was when campuses closed in March. Still, he favors virtual learning over in-person lessons right now.
“I really look forward to returning to school, but to walk around with a mask, gloves, to feel scared all the time? That’s hard.”
He’s optimistic about the future. “We have to keep going. COVID-19 may have won this battle but it didn’t win the war. Do we fall off because it’s not what we wanted for the fall or it’s going to be hard? We have to keep pushing, especially us high schoolers, to the finish line of graduation. We have to persevere.”
Reporters Marta W. Aldrich and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.