Dr. Joris Ray

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray speaks to reporters during a news conference Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, announcing the district's plan to reopen for in-person learning.

(The Center Square) – After a week of growing pressure from state officials, Tennessee’s last all virtual learning school district announced a plan for a gradual return to in-person learning – nearly a year after students were sent home because of COVID-19.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray announced Friday elementary school students will begin returning to classrooms March 1, and grades 6-12 will return beginning March 8. Teachers and school staff will receive a reopening bonus up to $1,000.

"We’ve stood alone in Memphis and Shelby County against mounting pressure to reopen while COVID-19 cases spiked in our community,” Ray said. “The time has come for us to return stronger in-person to our buildings and classrooms.”

In-classroom learning will continue to be delivered via Microsoft Teams. Students will be required to bring laptops to school, and will learn from teachers in the classroom using school-issued headsets. This method will be used through the end of the school year “to ensure equity” between in-person and virtual students, Ray said.

The announcement came hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for safe school reopening, strongly urging schools to open.

“It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services,” the CDC said in the new guidelines.

Shelby County’s announcement also followed a week of growing pressure from state officials to reopen for in-person learning.

Gov. Bill Lee singled out the district Monday in his State of the State address, noting that “146 of our 147 districts have an in-person option for students – and that choice is so critical for our kids.”

The statement followed Lee's comment last month calling for school districts to reopen for in-person learning by Feb 15. Republican legislative leadership also proposed a bill last month to defund school districts that refused to offer in-person learning.

The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 103 on Wednesday. It would give the governor authority to issue a statewide executive order order requiring schools to be open for in-person learning.

“No one is saying that the governor or Shelby County Schools should force any children back into an atmosphere which they view as unsafe,” bill sponsor Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said during the committee meeting. “For those parents who want their children back into school, let's follow the science. The science says it's safe.”

Kelsey said that while Shelby County Schools previously had planned to open by Feb. 8, the district delayed it’s reopening plan the day after Lee called for all districts to reopen by mid-February.

“They are keeping these schools closed purely out of spite. It's purely political,” Kelsey said. “They are listening to the teachers union and not to the parents.”

Teachers union leadership immediately fired back at Kelsey’s comments. Danette Stokes, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, told The Center Square that Shelby County schools does follow the science of the Shelby County Public Health Department.

“The best place for our students is back in the classroom,” Stokes said. “But successfully resuming in-person instruction, it requires the trust and competence of our families, educators and the community, and the decision is made with their health in mind.”

Stokes said Kelsey’s bill would “cause irreparable harm” to teachers and families, and that instead of forcing students back into the classroom, the governor should give teachers priority for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Two Shelby County parents shared their challenges with the district’s policies with the Senate Education Committee.

“How do we know who stays home and who goes to their job?” asked Collierville father of four Chris Dickens. “I run a company, a small business, and I can't just stay home. I've got to go to work in order to make a living for my family so that I can feed them.”

Richland Elementary mom Clarissa Dreis, who also owns a small business, shared her concerns over the district’s lack of communication with parents about plans to move forward with in-person learning.

“Needless to say, the kids are falling behind,” Dries said. “I don't believe that it is the same receiving the virtual education. They do not receive the same attention that they would if they were being in person.”

Next month, however, Shelby County students will return to schools to learn in the classroom, albeit through a computer screen.

“Working together, Shelby County Schools and local health officials are doing what is right for our community regardless of political pressure,” Memphis Democrat Sen. Raumesh Akbari said in a statement. “Our mission now must be to get vaccines in the arms of teachers and support staff as soon as possible.”

Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.