Some Memphis school board members push for a reopening date as superintendent shares updated protocols

Superintendent Joris Ray sits at a table in the central office auditorium looking at a screen to join the virtual school board committee meeting.
Superintendent Joris Ray updated school board members on the district’s plan to reopen classrooms Thursday. Shelby County Schools students have been learning remotely since late August. (Shelby County Schools)

Some Shelby County Schools board members want Superintendent Joris Ray to commit to a new date for reopening classrooms, adding to recent pressure from the governor to open by mid-February. 

Ray presented some updates for reopening during a board committee meeting Thursday, including creating a district contact-tracing team and using district buildings to administer vaccines to teachers. But he mostly reviewed plans that have been in place since summer. On Friday, he delayed reopening classrooms indefinitely, citing high community spread of the respiratory disease COVID-19. 

After hearing all the details, some board members were more vocal about their support to reopen Memphis classrooms after months of little pushback. Board member Billy Orgel said he didn’t understand why Ray couldn’t follow Gov. Bill Lee’s desire to reopen by Feb. 15. 

“I think you’ve got the groundwork laid,” Orgel said. “I want to know a date that we’re going to go back to school.” 

Pressure to reopen school buildings in the state’s largest district has been mounting for weeks from the state legislature, Lee, and most recently in a letter from the local chamber of commerce. Board member Kevin Woods said district employees and parents should hear about a new tentative date directly from Ray. 

“Your presentation further assures me that we can do that,” Woods said. “You want to honor that commitment of giving those families choices.”

For parents who want the opportunity to send their children to classrooms, board member Shante Avant added “it’s paramount to how they work, they live.” 

Other board members commended Ray’s “outstanding leadership” by keeping virtual learning since the school year began in late August. 

“We know that the best place, as it relates to academics for our children is in the classroom,” said board member Stephanie Love. “But we also know that we have to prioritize safety over that, which is why I think we’re doing a good job with the virtual process.”

Ray acknowledged that COVID-19 cases in Shelby County are declining, but also said  the COVID-19 tracker in the New York Times lists the county as at high risk for infection. Ray said he would like to see the risk decline further if people avoid large gatherings and wear masks. Previously, he urged the governor to issue a statewide mandate for wearing masks.

“I see there are signs of hope,” Ray told board members. “But we can’t negate the fact that we’ve got to have community support to do this job.” 

Shelby County Schools plans to have its own contact tracing team that will work with the health department to identify people at risk of infection if someone tests positive for COVID-19. Officials were not immediately available to provide details about how many people would be on the team. 

Recent research has suggested that the degree to which open schools further the spread of COVID-19 depends on pre-existing rates of spread in the community. Researchers also caution that contact tracing may have missed some cases, and note that school systems lack systematic “surveillance” testing that would provide a complete picture of virus cases in a school.

To help the local health department administer vaccinations to staff, Ray said they plan to use a teacher training building on Union Avenue and the district’s future headquarters in North Memphis. 

District officials also plan to deploy 60 school nurses to help public health workers inoculate up to 1,170 people per day, said Patrice Thomas, the district’s chief of staff. The district employs about 14,000 people and about 6,000 responded to a recent survey to gauge interest in getting the vaccine. Ray said about 4,600 of respondents want to get the vaccine. 

When Memphis school buildings reopen, the district’s plan calls for students to continue receiving instruction through a screen as many teachers have chosen to continue to teach remotely. About 32% of students are expected to return to buildings, and about 17% of teachers are expected to do so, according to survey results released in mid-December.

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