Most Memphis students set to return to school after storm forces five-day closure

A tan and red stone building with a sidewalk in the middle and a snowy yard with a cloudy sky in the background.
A week after storms dropped 3 to 5 inches of snow across Memphis, it hadn't all melted away. Ripple effects left the city with a boil-water advisory, keeping schools like Maxine Smith STEAM Academy closed on Monday. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

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Memphis-Shelby County Schools said most of its schools would reopen Tuesday after a week of weather-related closures. But the wait isn’t over yet for students at one school, Hamilton K-8, which still has building issues.

A storm that blasted the region over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day long weekend heaped 3 to 5 inches of snow across Memphis and knocked temperatures close to zero degrees, snarling city streets and cracking water pipelines. The resulting low water pressure prompted a citywide boil-water advisory and impeded a return to school for students, especially at schools that rely on boilers for heat. Some child care centers also closed, forcing parents to miss out on work and wages.

As the school closures stretched into a second week Monday, parents had to adapt.

By Day 5, Raven Brown was ready to be out of the house.

For the sake of getting some learning done, she and her third grader, Genesis Pegues, set out for the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library to work on a cereal box school project for Black History Month.

A tan and red stone building with a sidewalk in the middle and a snowy yard with a cloudy sky in the background.
At the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, third grader Genesis Pegues worked with her mom, Raven Brown, on a Black History Month project for school. They and several other families spent part of the day in the children's section of the library. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

“I could have printed, and copied, and did all of this stuff at home, but we’ve been there so long that it felt good to just come out and see different people,” Brown said, wrapping red construction paper around a box of Frosted Flakes.

Memphis water pressure returned to normal levels on Monday, but ensuring that water quality is good enough to lift the boil-water advisory could take another day, according to city utility Memphis Light, Gas and Water. The district said late Monday that the water at Hamilton K-8 “is not at an operable level.”

When MSCS students return to schools Tuesday, they will have meals that don’t require water, the district said. Hand washing is safe under the advisory, MSCS said, pointing to health department guidance.

Memphis district officials repeated appeals for resources to upgrade old buildings. The district has been working for months on a plan to close and invest in buildings so students have better learning environments, but the proposed updates will need much more financial support than the district has recently received.

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As of now, the Memphis district has no plans to extend the school year to offset the missed days, MSCS told Chalkbeat.

Brown said she agreed with the extended closures, in part because of the hazardous road conditions. But she wished there had been some kind of online option available for students who could access it. At home, she had Genesis do some kind of learning each day, reading books and doing practice school work on the i-Ready computer program.

A pandemic-era law governing remote learning restricts Tennessee districts to two days of online classes per semester each school year, with requirements for attendance, student meals, and special education services.

For Rickesha Williams, who balances her own classes at the University of Memphis with work while her children are at school and day care, the past week has brought added challenges. She works as a rideshare driver, and wasn’t able to drive because of the road conditions last week.

Closing school, she said, “was the right thing to do” to minimize car crashes.

By Monday, she was driving again, but took a break at the library so she could log into a class she’s taking toward a degree in criminal justice. The university was closed last week and switched to remote learning this week.

The weather interrupted emergency-services training for Rashard Jones, who drove to the library with his 6- and 4-year-old boys from Bartlett, a Memphis suburb that remained out of school Monday.

The 6-year-old has been reading to his brother, whose day care has been closed, too.

“I try to make education entertainment, not make it a chore — find the joy in learning,” said Jones, adding that he’s valued the slower pace for family time during the last week.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information about Hamilton K-8 School.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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