Superintendent sets bar for reopening Memphis classrooms: daily case counts consistently in single digits

A social distancing floor marker in a Memphis school building
Shelby County Schools announced that all classes would be online until further notice in July. Some school buildings already had social distancing stickers on the floor in anticipation of students returning. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Shelby County Schools buildings will remain closed for students until the daily tally of new coronavirus cases in the county declines to single digits for two weeks, Superintendent Joris Ray told reporters Monday. 

“We want the curve to flatten,” he said from a mostly empty Highland Oaks Middle School, where teachers opted to conduct online classes from the building. “It’s about not contributing to the community spread.”

Superintendent Joris Ray at Highland Oaks Middle School on the first day of the 2020-21 academic year. Teachers have the option to conduct online classes from their classroom. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Ray’s statement during a press conference on the first day of online classes is the most specific indication he has shared about when Shelby County Schools’ 95,000 students might return to school buildings. The threshold is not as strict as a demand from teacher protesters who called for keeping all classes online until the county reported no new coronavirus cases for 14 days.

But it would still mean a sharp slowdown from current rates. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, has seen an average of 183 new coronavirus cases per day in the last week. The share of positive test results has steadily decreased from the county’s peak of 16% in mid-July to 11% about a week ago, according to the county Health Department. 

In recent guidance, the agency said schools could remain open for in-person learning until the share of positive tests reached 25%, a threshold that is sharply higher than in other school districts across the nation. 

Each of the smaller suburban school districts surrounding Shelby County Schools is offering in-person instruction as an option for parents. The area’s largest high school, in Collierville, suspended in-person learning through Sept. 11 after recording five coronavirus cases in the first two weeks, the school announced Friday. Some charter schools, which are independently run but report to the district, are also offering in-person learning. 

Ray said reopening Shelby County Schools for in-person learning presented too big a risk of worsening the virus’ spread. 

“If we don’t get it right, our community suffers,” he said. “If we don’t get it right, our surrounding states suffer.”

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