Seeking ‘normalcy,’ protecting family: Memphis teachers weigh where to conduct classes during COVID

A teacher monitors the videoconference chat box on her laptop and a separate screen while another teacher conducts the class
A Highland Oaks Middle School teacher monitors the videoconference chat box on her laptop and a separate screen while another teacher conducts the class. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Ever since Terence Allen decided he wanted to be a teacher, he imagined himself in a classroom with students. But he’s beginning his first year of teaching during a pandemic with students learning remotely. So Allen grasped for the only sense of normalcy offered to him: teach from a school building.

Allen didn’t imagine that teaching would mean spending all day looking at a computer screen. “I never visualized myself without my students,” he said. Being inside East High School for online classes is “closer to what I would like to obtain when things go back to normal.” 

Thousands of Shelby County Schools teachers had the option to conduct online classes from home or from their classroom. Before Memphis schools chose to start the school year this week with all-virtual classes, teachers had been urging Superintendent Joris Ray to afford them the same choice the district gave to parents for their children: to learn in a school building or from home. Ray granted that flexibility soon after. 

Without students in the building, teachers can more easily maintain safe social distancing, educators said. That’s important as the county’s coronavirus test positivity rate is still higher than comparable areas opening their school buildings. Shelby County Schools leaders have been stricter than the county health department, which plans to mandate school closures only if the COVID positivity rate reaches 25%, a rate several times higher than other standards set across the country. 

Cheryl Bailey, a seventh grade English teacher at White Station Middle School, chose to work from home because her adult daughter, who is living with her, recently underwent major surgery. (Photo courtesy Cheryl Bailey)

For Cheryl Bailey, a seventh grade English teacher at White Station Middle School, working from home was a way of protecting her family. Her 6-month-old granddaughter and 24-year-old daughter, who recently underwent major surgery, have been living with her for a few months. Her daughter also has health conditions that put her at greater risk should she contract the coronavirus. 

“I just want to keep that risk factor very low for her and my grandbaby,” said Bailey, who has been teaching at Memphis schools for almost 25 years. 

Shelby County Schools could not provide an estimate of how many teachers are working from home, a district spokeswoman said. Teachers submitted telework agreements, which required the approval of principals. Some employees chose to start the year in a school building but sought permission in case they want to switch later to working remotely. 

At Highland Oaks Middle School, all 40 teachers opted to work from the building, Principal Monica Fleming said. Four teachers brought their children to school with them as they logged on to their own classes. 

Fleming said the internet at school is faster and more reliable than at most homes and it’s easier for her to troubleshoot problems with her staff. As her administrators view virtual classes on a large monitor, Fleming keeps in touch via hand-held radio and serves as a “runner” to help teachers if they get stuck.

(Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

“They know that with us being here doing this together, we can give kids way more than we would’ve been able to if some of them were at home,” she said. 

Allen estimated that about 30% to 40% of teachers at East High are working from the building. Every day staff check his temperature and everyone is required to wear a mask if they are in the hallway or around other staff. Allen has easy access to school supplies — and his school even provided a printer for his classroom. 

“They’ve done a good job to bless those teachers who have decided to come up,” he said. 

Bailey estimated about 25% of White Station Middle teachers are working from the building, but she doesn’t feel detached from her other colleagues who are working from home. 

“One thing about this pandemic: no one is isolating. We’re on the phone all the time,” she said. “When they learn something, they put it out immediately to share it.”

“I was very overwhelmed at first, but now I’ve shifted to excitement,” she said.

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