Friday, February 12, 2021

Chalkbeat: Shelby County Schools to Reopen Classrooms

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2021 at 5:08 PM

click to enlarge Superintendent Joris Ray - SHELBY COUNTY SCHOOLS/FACEBOOK
  • Shelby County Schools/Facebook
  • Superintendent Joris Ray

Two weeks after Superintendent Joris Ray delayed reopening classrooms indefinitely, he announced students can begin returning to Memphis schools on March 1st.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade can return to classrooms first, on March 1st, with sixth through 12th graders returning a week later on March 8th. The new timeline means that parents can contact their school if they want to change to in-person learning. Parents who choose to continue learning from home can still do that.

Ray is urging all teachers to return to classrooms by February 22nd and will offer a $1,000 bonus for certified educators and $500 for other school-based employees.

The superintendent told reporters Friday that he does not know when Memphis teachers will be able to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, even though he said district leaders have “pleaded with health officials and state leaders for months to prioritize vaccinations for teachers and SCS employees.” Federal guidelines released Friday said schools don’t need to wait for staff to be vaccinated to reopen.

Ray cited declining numbers of COVID-19 cases in the county as one of the reasons he wants to reopen classrooms in about two weeks. He also cited a legislative proposal to cut funding for school systems that do not offer at least 70 days of in-person learning this year.

“We’ve fought the good fight. We’ve stood alone in Memphis and Shelby County against mounting pressure to reopen while COVID-19 cases spiked in our community,” Ray said in a prepared statement Friday afternoon. “We know best how to serve our students and children and as such, the time has come for us to return stronger in-person to our buildings and classrooms.”

Governor Bill Lee has pressed Shelby County Schools to offer an in-person learning option, and a spokeswoman praised Ray and the school board Friday for its decision.

“Today’s announcement is encouraging news for parent choice and a return to the classroom is critical for students, especially low-income students who have struggled this year,” said Laine Arnold, adding that the state “will continue to provide support.”

But even students who return to buildings may still be learning through live videoconferencing since only about 17 percent of the district’s teachers chose to teach from their classroom, based on the December survey.

When Ray updated school board members on the district’s reopening plan last week, including a team of contact tracers and plans to help the local health department vaccinate teachers at two district buildings, some board members urged Ray to set a new timeline.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district with 90,000 students, is the only one  in Tennessee that hasn’t reopened school buildings this school year. Students in district run schools have been learning through live videoconferencing since August. The district’s charter schools can make their own reopening plans and most of the charter networks are offering in-person learning, though few students are returning.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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