Memphians demand district create more virtual learning options to stop the COVID spread in schools

Superintendent Joris Ray sits at a table in the central office auditorium looking at a screen to join the virtual school board committee meeting.
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray listens intently at a meeting in the board auditorium earlier this year. During Tuesday’s school board meeting, speakers urged Ray to take a bolder stance against a state policy that restricts local officials from switching an entire district to virtual learning. (Shelby County Schools)

Four weeks into the school year, a growing chorus of Memphis parents are pressing Shelby County Schools to be more aggressive in creating a virtual learning option as safety concerns mount amid a surge in community COVID  cases. 

But district officials made clear at an emotional school board meeting Tuesday night that it’s not likely to happen, citing the strict requirements Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has set for granting waivers to the state’s virtual learning restrictions.

On Friday, Schwinn said that she would allow school districts to shift severely affected schools or classrooms to virtual or hybrid learning as outlined in each district’s continuous learning plan. But Schwinn maintained her stance that the switch could not happen districtwide. 

Memphis deputy superintendent John Barker said during Tuesday’s board meeting Schwinn’s announcement will most likely benefit smaller school districts because she will only grant the waivers if there aren’t enough adults to cover the classroom. 

With its robust staff of central office employees, many of whom have teaching licenses, it is unlikely that Shelby County Schools would have the same teacher shortage that some smaller districts might face, said Barker. 

“What people heard about virtual learning is not really a viable opportunity for a district like us, like Metro Nashville, like Hamilton County that actually has the ability to go and keep the school open,” said Barker. 

Superintendent Joris Ray said that school officials have received threats warning them that if the entire district switches to virtual learning or hybrid learning that funding, the board, and the superintendent could be removed. He did not specify the source of those threats. 

“It’s been a number of threats to this particular issue. I’m unsure of what ramifications may occur,” he said to an overflow crowd who gathered Tuesday night in the board auditorium to share frustrations with the district’s management of its third school year in a pandemic. 

During the public comment section at the beginning of the meeting, speakers denounced what they view as unsafe schools. Many urged Ray to take a bolder stance against Gov. Lee and officials in the state capital who oppose widespread remote education.

“There needs to be a consciousness above the law. A consciousness above what Nashville might be telling you to do. A consciousness that requires us to act and to behave differently because there is a global pandemic going on, and we have to ask, Dr. Ray, at what cost is my mother’s life worth?” said Justin Pearson, a Memphis activist and son of a Shelby County Schools educator. 

Pearson mentioned local students and teachers who have died of complications from COVID this school year and asked the board and the superintendent if they would “rather carry caskets” than “draw the ire of Bill Lee.”

“This is the injustice that we’re fighting,” said Pearson. 

As of Aug. 26, there have been 987 students diagnosed with COVID and 155 staff members, according to district records

The district does not have a vaccine mandate for teachers, but has continued to require masks in school despite the governor’s executive order that states that families can request to opt out of that policy for any reason. Shelby County government and the parents of immunocompromised students have filed lawsuits attempting to bar the executive order.  

SCS currently operates one online academy, Memphis Virtual School, but it is only available to students in grades four through 12 and has an enrollment capacity of 1,500 students. A district spokesperson said Wednesday that 900 students are currently enrolled in the virtual school — more than triple a typical school year — and that administrators are reviewing hundreds of pending applications.

Without more options to learn virtually or telework, teachers and students who don’t want to return in person because of preexisting conditions face a precarious situation in the classroom, said Raquel Williams, a teacher and officer with the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

Williams also voiced concern over the new Shelby County Schools online dashboard of districtwide COVID cases. She feels it does not go far enough, and said that teachers and parents should receive daily, not weekly, updates of coronavirus cases in their schools and classrooms.

And she challenged the district to change its policy on staff absences due to quarantine. 

“Teachers should not be forced to utilize sick days while quarantining,” she said to applause. 

Recently, Adrienne Battle, head of Metro Nashville Public Schools, announced that vaccinated teachers would get extra paid sick days. Memphis board member Kevin Woods supported considering a similar policy in Memphis. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, Woods also joined his fellow board members in praising the superintendent and his “amazing team” for their management during the pandemic. The superintendent’s annual board evaluation was shared Tuesday night, and he received high marks in every category. 

Woods gave the superintendent kudos for his “impressive” efforts to raise awareness about vaccinations and increase access to COVID testing, including mobile testing units that rotate to each school. 

Woods pushed back on the sentiment that the district hasn’t taken bold and necessary actions to keep students and staff safe.

“This board stood up. Your general counsel stood up. Our kids stood up; they are wearing masks,” said Woods. “So this whole conversation about the recoil of going back to where we were, that’s a non-starter. My daughter wants to be back at school, and as long as we’re doing everything possible to keep our kids, our adults safe, let’s keep them in the classroom.” 

But parent and pastor Sara Corum who watched the entire meeting online shared one of the lesser discussed consequences of the virtual learning controversy. 

“My two just came off a 10-day quarantine from exposure. During the quarantine they received work to do but no instruction because their teachers are not permitted to teach them from home,” she said.

With hesitation and concern, she sent them back to school after the quarantine ended. 

“We don’t have a lot of viable options,” she said.  “And yet, it feels like we’re playing Russian roulette with our children. No parent should ever be in the position we’re in. Ever.”

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