9 things you should know before Memphis classrooms start reopening Monday

Superintendent Joris Ray uses a no-contact thermometer to screen a teacher before she receives a COVID-19 vaccine.
Superintendent Joris Ray checks a teacher’s temperature before she receives her COVID-19 vaccine at Shelby County Schools’ headquarters on Feb. 24, 2021. (Shelby County Schools)

The first wave of Shelby County Schools students are returning to classrooms Monday, just days after educators got the opportunity to get their COVID-19 vaccines.

After a delay related to the city’s largest snowfall in 50 years, teachers began returning to buildings to prepare classrooms for social distancing. Earlier this week, one of the district’s teacher unions protested some parts of the district’s reopening plan. Some teachers are quitting instead of returning.  

Although the district already had plans for how to return to school buildings, some things have changed and our readers had a lot of questions. Here’s what we know. Do you have more questions that aren’t answered here? Email us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Schools will revert to their normal start and end times for the school day.

That way, the district can time bus routes for students who are going to buildings. At the beginning of the school year when everyone was remote, the district put every school on an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, but that will change Monday. Check with your principal for the start and end times at your school. The schedule changes also will apply to students learning remotely.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks and undergo temperature checks every day.

That has been true since the district first unveiled its reopening plan. If a student or staff member does not have a mask, the school has extras for them. 

If a student’s temperature is above 100.4 degrees, they will be sent to a designated room in the school until a parent can pick them up. 

Even students who return to buildings will learn through live videoconferencing.

In-person learning won’t be like it was before the pandemic. Students will still log on to online classes through Microsoft Teams, the videoconferencing platform they have been using all year. 

Officials believe parents will feel their children are being instructed equally even if they aren’t ready to send their children back to classrooms. Some parents have said they had wanted to choose in-person learning, but they felt the district’s instruction plan wasn’t worth the risk. Still, district officials said returning students can get some social interaction with peers and get guidance from teachers, things that are difficult to get remotely.

Staff and parents should expect to know if a person who tests positive for COVID-19 was in close contact with them or their child within 12 hours of when the school was notified.

That’s according to a recent directive from the Shelby County Health Department. After a COVID-19 case is reported, district officials will review the teacher or student’s schedule, check if they rode the bus, and identify any extracurricular activities or sports they might be involved in. Then school leaders will contact people who might have come in close contact with them so they can quarantine at home. 

Quarantines will last 10 days after contact with the infected person, district officials said. In December, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened quarantines from 14 to 10 days in some cases, but Rutherford County Schools, Tennessee’s fourth largest district, recently switched back to 14 days because some students developed symptoms after they returned to campus from quarantine. 

The health order says school leaders should update at-risk parents, students, and staff weekly about what they are doing to prevent more infections and any changes to the school day as a result. Shelby County Schools plans to use text messaging, email, and robocalls to notify affected parents and staff. 

A typical classroom will hold no more than 12 students to allow for social distancing.

A floor sign encouraging social distancing at Brewster Elementary School in January. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

John Barker, a district deputy superintendent, said other classrooms may be able to hold more students sitting 6 feet apart, but that maximum is a general rule based on the typical classroom size. 

You can find how many students are expected to return to your school in Chalkbeat’s searchable table

Over the past few months, district leaders have bought plastic desk dividers for classrooms too. Extra masks for students and staff will be available at each school, along with gloves for staff.

Soap and paper towel dispensers will be restocked every day, instead of waiting to refill when they run out.

“There will be soap always restocked, there will be paper towels always restocked, hand sanitizer always restocked,” said Barker, the deputy superintendent. “That’s something that we’re excited to talk about especially for our teachers, especially for everyone who is going to be back in buildings.”

The district has made some ventilation improvements, and more are on the way.

Maintenance staff have installed upgraded air filters in most buildings, but the new filters still fall short of federal guidance. Air systems are set to take in more fresh air during the day and Ray plans to use some new federal relief money to better capture small viral particles in the air.

Teachers are required to come back to classrooms beginning Monday.

This is a reversal from Superintendent Joris Ray’s plan announced months ago to allow teachers to have the option to continue working remotely. He said that he looked at “every aspect to try to give teachers choice. But we need teachers to do this work effectively.” He had planned to reassign teacher assistants, behavior specialists, and central office staff to supervise students and assured the public they had enough staff. The school board even approved a $956,250 contract with a staffing agency to hire classroom monitors to help fill the gap. 

District officials did not elaborate on why teachers were required to return to classrooms. 

The district has not specified a threshold number of COVID-19 cases for temporarily closing a school.

Instead, Shelby County Schools officials said they will decide on a case-by-case basis and consider the number of COVID-19 cases, how many students and staff were identified through contact tracing, the district’s capacity to sanitize the school before students and staff return, and how the cases were connected to the school. 

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