Shelby County Schools prepares for ‘a safe return’

A Shelby County Schools employee sanitizes one of many long cafeteria tables while a group of people stand toward the back of the room.

Shelby County Schools is preparing for what it hopes will be its first full year of in-person classes since the 2018-19 school year. The district worked behind the scenes this summer to ready its buildings, buses, and staff for the first day of school Monday as the delta variant rages, leading to spikes in COVID-19 infections, child hospitalization, and deaths

Memphis was the last district in Tennessee to return to in-person learning last school year, opting for all online classes until reopening in March, following pressure from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. But even then, about two-thirds of Memphis students chose to remain online. Through a series of block parties, town halls, and press events over the last few days, the district is welcoming back excited families and reassuring reluctant ones.

“In-person is going to be safe, and we have all precautions and measures in place for a safe return,” one district official said this week.

Masks are mandatory in Memphis schools

Shelby County Schools was one of the first districts in the state to announce it would require masks for all students and school-based staff this year. 

Despite threats from Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton to withhold funding from any district mandating masks, Memphis officials have held firm in their decision citing recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which recommends “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 

In a reversal of earlier policy, on Thursday, Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to require face coverings in schools. Then, on Friday morning, the Shelby County Health Department announced that masks will be required in all public and private schools countywide. 

Although masks will be required in Memphis schools, students entering school buildings each day will not receive temperature or symptom checks; however, visitors will still have their temperatures read before entering school buildings to check for signs of fever, a symptom of COVID-19. 

Three custodial companies will clean schools

District officials said that custodial workers and staff will clean common areas, including libraries and classrooms, twice a day, and stock and clean bathrooms “a minimum of four times a day.”

Three custodial companies will maintain school buildings this year, with each company responsible for a different cluster of schools. In one of its most divided votes this spring, school board members voted to split the nearly $26 million contract between SKB Facilities & Maintenance and two local ServiceMaster franchises: ServiceMaster by Stratos based in Downtown Memphis and ServiceMaster Facilities Maintenance in Southeast Memphis. 

The district has contracted with multiple companies for years, most recently ServiceMaster and Aramark, but this year, the board dropped Aramark as a provider after ongoing complaints about school cleanliness. Some board members expressed reservations over maintaining ties with ServiceMaster. 

“Cleanliness of our buildings has been a problem for a while, and we’re upgrading so many things in our system. Upgrading our cleaning needs to be one of our top priorities,” said board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman at a committee meeting earlier this year.

The three companies were given “a mandate” to have schools cleaned and stocked with custodial supplies by Aug. 1.

Assigned seating and masks are required on buses

Students will sit in assigned seating on buses, in classrooms, and in the cafeteria. The assigned seating will help with contact tracing. District officials said they will practice social distancing on buses “when feasible,” but it is likely that there will be a student in every row. Just over 23,000 students, including 1,700 special education students, are eligible to ride school buses in Memphis. 

Buses will have hand sanitizer and masks for students who need them because masks are required. Workers will also sanitize buses each time one returns to the lot. 

On the first day of school, 373 new air conditioned school buses will greet riders across the city. The fleet of buses, equipped with GPS, tablets for drivers, and internal and external cameras, are part of a new contract with Cincinnati-based carrier First Student. 

“These are 2022 new,” said Adam Cleary, MidSouth district manager for First Student. “They are rolling off of the production line at Thomas, and they are arriving here in Shelby County literally the next day or as soon as they can.” 

Cleary said providing the district with a fleet of new buses during the pandemic was challenging for the manufacturer, Thomas Built Buses.

“They had similar challenges that the rest of the world is seeing with supply chains this year, but they worked very hard for us to make sure that we would have these buses on time and ready to serve our students here in Shelby County,” he said. 

Water fountains remain off limits, but regular cafeteria operations return

All water fountains will remain turned off this year to prevent the spread of germs. Instead, schools will provide students with bottled water. This spring, the school board voted to contract with the Whitehaven-based water distributor, the Water Source, to deliver bottled water biweekly to all schools. 

The contract for $510,930, or about $4.60 per student, should give the district enough bottled water to last through December, said Genard Phillips, chief of business operations.

Students are also encouraged to bring their own reusable water bottles, which they can refill at stations around the building. 

Cafeterias will return to normal operations, serving students district-wide around 150,000 hot and cold meals a day. 

“We’re excited to get back to all our service models, which is providing breakfast, lunch, snack, and supper meals,” said Eugene Bradford, executive director of nutrition services.

There are markers in the service lines to encourage social distancing, Bradford said. And the district’s 1,300 nutrition service employees have received training to learn about pandemic-safety food service. 

Schools will have sneeze guards, sanitation stations, and cleaner air

Classrooms and libraries are equipped with sneeze guards on desks and tables. 

Additionally, school employees have placed signs throughout buildings reminding students to social distance, wear masks, and wash their hands. Hand sanitizing and washing stations line hallways and common areas.

During the summer, maintenance crews thoroughly cleaned buildings and performed maintenance on HVAC and ventilation systems. Crews replaced air filters with updated filters that eliminate more bacteria from the air.  

“We don’t wait til summertime to change those filters. It is periodically done as a part of our preventive maintenance program,” said Jake Allen, executive director of facilities. “We want to make sure that fresh air is popping constantly through the building.”

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