Holdout no longer: All Memphis students have access to classrooms as older students return

A masked parent in the driver’s seat of a car and her masked daughter exiting the car in front of the school, as students stand apart in line to enter the building.
Jerika Walker drops off her daughter Jakayla Tuggle at Booker T. Washington Middle and High School on the first day of Shelby County Schools reopening classrooms March 8, 2021. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Some middle and high school students in Memphis returned to classrooms Monday, completing Shelby County Schools’ phased plan to reopen buildings nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted remote learning. 

About a fourth of middle and high school students were expected to return Monday. A third of pre-kindergarten and elementary students returned last week. Families have a choice to send children back to campus or to keep them learning from home via live videoconferencing, as they have done since August. The majority of district parents have chosen to stick with remote learning.

Charter schools, which educate about 17% of the district’s students, can make their own reopening plans. Several more opened their buildings Monday, such as Freedom Preparatory Academy and Memphis Business Academy, which means nearly all charter schools in the city are offering in-person learning. 

Latoya Jenkins was one of the first parents to show up at Manassas High School on Monday morning. In addition to a face mask and hand sanitizer, she bought gloves for her daughter to use at school. She has wanted classrooms to reopen for months.

When asked how virtual learning had been for her daughter, she put two thumbs down. 

“Our kids aren’t learning,” she said. “Baby, you can get corona anywhere. So don’t stop my child’s education.” Her daughter has been earning good grades, but she doesn’t believe that means she’s been getting the learning she needs.

Superintendent Joris Ray visited Lowrance K-8 School on the first day of welcoming back middle school students Monday. (Shelby County Schools)

The week before classrooms reopened, the county’s test-positivity rate dropped to about 5% — meaning 5% of COVID-19 tests taken returned positive — the lowest rate since early October. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new cases reported in the past week still put Memphis in the second-highest risk category for transmission, after months of being in the highest transmission tier. 

It’s unclear how new variants of the virus will affect transmission locally. 

The school district plans to begin offering COVID-19 tests to students and staff later this month.

Superintendent Joris Ray had been holding out on reopening classrooms while the city was in the highest-risk category. But as cases statewide began to decline and state legislators threatened to cut funding if districts didn’t offer an in-person option for students, Ray reluctantly announced new return dates and also backtracked on his promise to teachers and required them to return to buildings.

Without the option to work from home, science teacher Marsharee Swift said her anxiety kept her up until 2 a.m. Monday. Swift and most of her colleagues outside Manassas High were wearing face masks, face shields, gloves, and disposable medical gowns as they greeted students and parents Monday morning.

“We’re scared. Very scared,” Swift said. “We see the need for them to come back to school. But I hope we’re not having to sacrifice students, teachers, or staff because someone felt we needed to return.”

Rosemary Winters, who teaches students with severe disabilities at Westwood High School, was one of the two dozen educators who participated in a drive-by protest at the district’s headquarters last month. She worried that she would not have enough gloves, hand sanitizer, and other equipment to protect herself since her students need much more hands-on help than most, such as helping them in the bathroom and keeping their masks on.

But she was relieved to find she had plenty of supplies when she returned to her classroom last week to prepare for students’ arrival.

“Everything was there when I returned there. I was very pleased,” said Winters, who is also a board member of one of the district’s teacher unions, Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. She plans to continue advocating for ample supplies to be available throughout the school year, which ends in mid-June.

Jakayla Tuggle, a senior at Booker T. Washington Middle and High School, said she didn’t have any concerns about safety in the building from what she and her mother heard from school leaders. She was just ready to learn more and do some senior activities to mark her last year in high school. At home, she’s been having internet connection and laptop problems almost every other day, which has interfered with her classwork. 

“It’s been hard,” she said. 

Those technology problems won’t necessarily disappear for students returning to classrooms. They will continue to learn through videoconferencing and sign in to online classes taught by a teacher who may be in another classroom. District officials did not want dramatically different instruction for students on campus than for the majority who are still learning from home. 

The learning setup varies by school. But all campuses outfit their returning students with headphones to participate in online classes. Schools limit movement between rooms to reduce risk of any virus transmission among students and staff. 

Jenkins, the Manassas High parent, said she didn’t learn until recently that classes would continue to be online even for in-person students. Since then, she’s been looking at houses in neighboring suburb Bartlett so she can enroll her daughter in a school that has traditional in-person classes. 

“That’s what I have to do to make sure my child gets an education,” she said.

Swift, the science teacher, said despite the challenges, she wants to make the return to classrooms worthwhile for students. “We’re here and we’re going to make the best of it.” 

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