clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is my child’s teacher coming back? What you should know before deciding whether to return your children to Memphis classrooms

A box of protective masks.
Shelby County Schools parents and teachers have until Nov. 6 to choose to return to buildings or not.
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Update, Nov. 2, 2020: We’ve added a few more questions and answers. See questions 14 and onward.

Earlier this month, Shelby County Schools announced its intent to reopen buildings to students in January starting with elementary grades and students with disabilities. Parents and teachers can select whether to participate or continue remote learning, but they had a lot of questions.

We’ve gathered as many answers as we could since then. We’ll update this as we get more information. Have more questions that aren’t answered here? Email us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Questions

You can click on the links below to jump to a particular question you’re interested in.

  1. Should I be worried that my child will catch COVID-19 in the classroom?
  2. How will COVID-19 testing work?
  3. When is the deadline to make a decision?
  4. Will schools revert to their normal start and end times for the school day?
  5. I’m worried there will be too many students in classrooms to effectively social distance.
  6. Won’t students still be learning online even if they go back to buildings?
  7. Will students with disabilities get the therapy they need if they return to buildings?
  8. Who will watch my child if their teacher chooses to work remotely?
  9. I’m considering sending my child back to the classroom. How will students fill their time when they’re not in an online class?
  10. Will there be enough ventilation in classrooms to protect students from COVID-19?
  11. How often will buildings be cleaned and sanitized?
  12. Why is the district making parents and teachers choose an option now — two months before the plan would go into effect?
  13. When will we know whether or not the district will delay reopening?
  14. Before I make a decision, I want to know if my child’s teacher will be in the building.
  15. Will middle and high school students move from classroom to classroom if they return to buildings?
  16. Can I change my mind if my choice ends up not working for my child?
  17. Will students have to return devices if they go back to the classroom?
  18. Will students returning to buildings need to wear uniforms if their school requires them?

Should I be worried that my child will catch COVID-19 in the classroom?

It’s hard for public health officials to trace where someone contracted the coronavirus. But what local officials have noticed is that most COVID-19 cases in schools tend to be among athletes and coaches.

About 135 of the first 500 people infected with COVID-19 in Shelby County since late September, or 27%, were students or staff at schools, said David Sweat, the county’s chief of epidemiology. Of that group, 83% of them were athletes or coaches for basketball, volleyball, soccer, cheerleading, and other sports. Shelby County Schools suspended sports events in September after consulting with health officials, but many private schools and suburban districts did not.

Sweat said that he can’t rule out that infections spread in classrooms. But he said from looking at survey results from people who have contracted the virus, he sees a stronger correlation between sports and infection among students and staff.

“If you’re part of a team, you’re just interacting with these people so much more frequently,” he said. “And because it is so common that you’re interacting, people get more comfortable and maybe they’re less careful. So, less mask wearing, less social distancing.

“And a lot of the interactions that have happened that are risky are sleepovers, parties, outings, or just hanging out with your teammates after school or outside of school,” he said.

The same problem has surfaced, to a lesser degree, among staff, especially at staff meetings, in break rooms, and socializing outside of school, Sweat said.

“When you’re in the class, you’re very careful following the guidelines. But it’s those other places [they] may be being more relaxed: taking their masks off and not keeping the social distancing,” he said. “We don’t recommend people having social gatherings.”

Back to top

How will COVID-19 testing work?

A new method called “pooled testing” produces test results within 24 hours. “And then you can prevent that child from going back to school the next day if they’re positive,” said Manoj Jain, the city’s consulting epidemiologist.

When Shelby County Schools opens its buildings, the city will likely set up remote testing sites near schools that will be reserved for students and staff, said Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman. Some details are still being worked out, she said.

Manoj Jain wears a mask as he talks to Gov. Bill Lee
Manoj Jain with Gov. Bill Lee during a visit to the Christ Community COVID-19 testing site in Frayser in April.
Jim Weber / Daily Memphian

But the city’s existing program in more than a dozen private and charter schools offer a look at how testing would work.

Parents and staff opt into the testing, which involves a long cotton swab that reaches partially up the both nostrils for a few seconds each.

Jain said children have gotten used to testing at the private and charter schools he has visited. Testing can provide a “sense of security” for parents and staff and can detect infections before symptoms appear.

School board member Michelle McKissack said none of the schools participating so far have had to shut down because of an outbreak.

Back to top

When is the deadline to make a decision?

The deadline for parents and teachers to submit their choice is Friday, Nov. 6. Shelby County Schools recently extended the deadline a week.

Back to top

Will schools revert to their normal start and end times for the school day?

Yes. That way, the district can time bus routes for students who are going to buildings. At the beginning of the school year when everyone was remote, the district put every school on an 8 a.m.- 3 p.m. school day, but that will change in January. Check with your principal for the start and end times at your school. The schedule changes also will apply to students learning remotely.

Back to top

I’m worried there will be too many students in classrooms to effectively social distance.

To prepare for social distancing in classrooms, the district plans to remove all unnecessary furniture to allow for more space between desks and hold some classes in libraries, cafeterias, or gyms. Staff have already placed floor markers for walking 6 feet from others. Masks will be required all day except when eating.

A social distancing floor marker in a Memphis school building
Floor markers dot hallways in Memphis school buildings in anticipation of students returning.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

School officials can’t know how many students may show up in buildings, but they have some clues. According to the parent survey from July, before the district switched to all online learning, about half of students would have been expected to start the year in person.

The district initially said 80% of parents chose online learning in the survey. What the district didn’t reveal until weeks later was that parents of 37% of students did not respond. Since students defaulted to in-person learning if their parents didn’t respond to the survey, that means nearly 49,000 students, about half of the district’s population, would have been expected to return to buildings in August.

Back to top

Won’t students still be learning online even if they go back to buildings?

Yes. In an email to parents, the district described the move as a way to maintain equity. Rather than have some students break away from online learning if they come to class in person — which most educators agree leads to better learning — all students will have a version of online learning when buildings open.

But students will still be able to have safe social interaction, Phillips said.

“What we heard was people saying, ‘My little boy just wants to be around people again. He’s all alone,’ ” she said. “The teacher may be virtual, but still there’s some face-to-face interaction with peers and other adults.”

Back to top

Will students with disabilities get the therapy they need if they return to buildings?

Phillips, the spokeswoman, said parents of students with disabilities will hear from the district soon about what services will look like.

Back to top

Who will watch my child if their teacher chooses to work remotely?

If a teacher opts to work from home, another adult in the building, such as an educational assistant or behavior specialist, will be required to come in and monitor the class while the teacher gives instruction from the screen. The district did not provide a full list of positions of people who will be tasked with monitoring classrooms.

Back to top

I’m considering sending my child back to the classroom. How will students fill their time when they’re not in an online class?

Students can use books and other classroom-provided materials during breaks and independent study. The school day will still include recess, but playground equipment will be closed.

Back to top

Will there be enough ventilation in classrooms to protect students from COVID-19?

District officials are still working on that, but they have made some improvements.

Since March, the district has completed 3,350 repairs on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. They’ve also modified the systems to bring more fresh air into buildings more often, in accordance with recommendations from national organizations for reopening schools. The district’s air filters are more effective than the ones found in most school systems, but the filters still fall short of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Superintendent Joris Ray asked the governor for $26 million in state funding for a new air cleaning device in each of the district’s nearly 150 buildings, but there’s little research on whether or not it will work.

Back to top

How often will buildings be cleaned and sanitized?

A woman wipes down a school bathroom sink.
The district expects its janitorial contractors to clean bathrooms at least four times a day.
Shelby County Schools

Common areas such as conference rooms, hallways, and stairwells will be cleaned at least twice a day, the district said. Bathrooms will be cleaned at least four times each day.

The district is meeting with its janitorial contractors regularly about how they will meet the demand. District officials doesn’t know yet if the contractors will hire more staff, but anticipated more people are needed to stick to the new cleaning procedures.

Back to top

Why is the district making parents and teachers choose an option now — two months before the plan would go into effect?

Shelby County Schools leaders want parents and teachers to make a choice now so they have time to plan how staffing would work at each of the district’s nearly 150 schools. For example, staff who will need to monitor classrooms if teachers work remotely may need to change from their normal locations, or desks may need to be moved out of a room and into another depending on how many students are coming.

Back to top

When will we know whether or not the district will delay reopening?

District officials plan to make a final call in December on whether they will delay reopening buildings.

“We can assure the community that Shelby County Schools is keeping a watchful eye on the data and regularly seeking guidance from infectious disease experts,” the district told parents.

A district spokeswoman said the superintendent wanted to “remain flexible” and not release specific thresholds for coronavirus transmission to determine if the reopening plan stays on schedule.

“We don’t want to set ourselves to a specific number or any specific date because ... we have no control over this pandemic,” she said.

The numbers the district did release determine when students and teachers will be required to return to buildings:

  • The daily number of new coronavirus cases is fewer than 100 for two weeks.
  • The rate of coronavirus cases and total tests is less than 5% for two weeks.
  • The percent of intensive care unit hospital beds in use is less than 80% for two weeks.

Back to top

Before I make a decision, I want to know if my child’s teacher will be in the building.

During a parent information session Nov. 2, district officials suggested asking your child’s teacher directly. Some teachers are letting parents know this week if they’ve made their decision, but they are not required to do so. The officials said parents will know which teachers will be in the building closer to January.

Back to top

Will middle and high school students move from classroom to classroom if they return to buildings?

Students moving from room to room will be limited, but it depends on each school’s capacity and how many students return, district officials said during an information session Nov. 2. All classes will still be online when students return to buildings. When possible, the district is trying to keep students in small groups to reduce chances of virus transmission. Officials suggested parents reach out to their principal to learn specifics.

Back to top

Can I change my mind if my choice ends up not working for my child?

Probably not. Your choice will last through the end of the school year in June. During a information session Nov. 2, officials said that could change depending on how the pandemic continues to unfold, but there are no current opportunities for parents to change their mind in the middle of the semester. When parents were faced with this choice the first time in July, the district said it would consider requests to switch on a case-by-case basis.

Back to top

Will students have to return devices if they go back to the classroom?

No. Students will still need their tablet or laptop if they return to buildings because teachers will continue to conduct all classes through Microsoft Teams, the video conferencing platform that students have been using since the school year began.

Back to top

Will students returning to buildings need to wear uniforms if their school requires them?

Yes. Students still learning from home will not have to wear uniforms, but the district’s revised dress code still applies.

Back to top

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Connect with your community

Find upcoming Tennessee events