As Tennessee governor pushes for in-person learning, nearly all students in state-run district are learning online

Elementary school students work at their desks with masks on
Libertas School of Memphis was one of five in the state-run Achievement School District to offer in-person instruction. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

When school started at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis last week, just 13 of its 234 students were signed up to return in person. 

Across the 24 schools in the state-run Achievement School District, 96% of about 8,800 students are learning online. At five of those schools, parents had the option to send their children to school buildings, but 75% of them opted for virtual learning. 

The Tennessee Department of Education created the Achievement district in 2012 to take over and improve low-performing schools, mostly by turning them over to charter operators. 

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, right, and state Rep. Mark White on a tour of Libertas School of Memphis last week. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Gov. Bill Lee has urged school districts to reopen for in-person instruction, and the state has generated hundreds of pages of guidance to help make that happen. But in the schools run by his administration, parents are not convinced. 

Charles Lampkin, a parent at Cornerstone Prep Denver in Frayser, said he prayed about whether to send his two sons back to class or to keep them home. He ultimately decided that they would start the school year remotely.

“I kept hearing in my spirit: safer at home,” he said. 

Lampkin has diabetes, and while he’s lost 240 pounds to improve his health, he remains at an elevated risk were he to contract COVID-19.

“We follow every one of those guidelines,” he said, referring to recommendations from health officials to wear masks, wash hands, and keep 6 feet away from others. 

Cornerstone, part of one of the state district’s charter school operators, initially offered both in-person and online options, but after a parent survey showed that 85% of students would be learning from home, they went all virtual. 

Below is a table of the schools in the Achievement School District and how they are delivering instruction during the first weeks of the 2020-21 academic year. If the school is part of a charter organization, that organization’s name is in parentheses. Otherwise, the school is directly run by the state.

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The option to learn virtually, however, did not shield students at Frayser and Corning Achievement Elementary schools from potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

The first day of school there was pushed two days to Sept. 2, after someone connected to the school tested positive for COVID-19 just as staff were about to distribute laptops to students who would be learning online. Laptop distribution was delayed and all students are learning online until at least Sept. 14, according to a district letter to parents

The district’s spokeswoman, Hope Soriano-McCrary, declined a Chalkbeat request for an interview and a visit to a state-run school offering in-person instruction “to decrease potential exposure to our students and staff.”

Gov. Bill Lee (Courtesy of state of Tennessee)

In pushing for in-person learning across the state, Gov. Lee has said that students learning online miss out on quality instruction, mental health services, and the watchful eye of a teacher if there is suspected child abuse.

“There are so many reasons why it is not safe or best for children to stay home if — if — we can provide them a safe alternative, which includes in-person learning,” he said last month on a conservative talk show hosted by the pro-voucher organization Beacon Center of Tennessee. 

He also said parents should have the option to have their child learn from home. 

“We’ve got to do both, and we’ve got to do it safely, and we’ve got to advance and move forward and go ahead and storm the beach,” Lee said. “We can’t just sit back out here until all of us die. We have to move forward and accomplish what needs to get done in this state.”

Some schools across the state have already had to close temporarily because of coronavirus cases. Since Tennessee districts began opening in late July, the number of coronavirus cases has nearly doubled among those under age 20 from 15,351 to 29,442, according to the Tennessee Department of Health

Chalkbeat Tennessee bureau chief Jacinthia Jones contributed to this story.

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