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Memphis teacher unions say few are choosing to return to classrooms in January, leaving support staff to fill the void

A desk with a laptop, tablet, phone, and watch. On the laptop is an open Zoom conversation with various participants.
Shelby County Schools teachers have the option to teach from home or their classroom when students begin returning to buildings in January.
Gabriel Benois/Unsplash

Memphis teacher association leaders said a vast majority of teachers are choosing to stay at home even as Shelby County Schools plans to open buildings in January.

Jolie Madihalli, president of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said teacher feedback was clear during a recent meeting of association leaders from each school.

Headshot of Jolie Madihalli
Jolie Madihalli, president of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association
Courtesy of Jolie Madihalli

“The overwhelming response that we have been hearing is teachers do not want to go back into the building,” she said.

When the school year started all online in August, nearly half of the district’s 6,500 teachers were working from school buildings, while about 37% were working from home. Seventeen percent were doing a combination of both. But there could be a shortage of teachers and monitors in January if survey results reflect what association leaders are hearing.

“There’s just not enough people in the building,” said Madihalli.

Even teachers who volunteered to teach from their school building as students learned from home are switching to remote instruction when students return, said Danette Stokes, the president of United Education Association of Shelby County (UEA).

“They’re not going back to the building if the children are there because they’re not sure what the numbers are going to look like,” she said. Not only are teachers worried about the number of COVID-19 infections in the community, but also how many students will come back, she said.

Together, the two associations represent about half of Shelby County Schools teachers. Parents and teachers have until Nov. 6 to submit their choice of continuing remote learning or returning to school buildings. Either way, teachers will instruct through videoconferencing. When district officials presented the plan to school board members last month, they were confident they would have enough adults to monitor classrooms if teachers decided to stay home.

National and local data so far suggest schools are not the primary place where children and staff get infected if they have masks and keep at least 6 feet apart, but research is limited. Most COVID-19 cases in schools in Shelby County have tended to be among athletes and coaches who interact more frequently and may relax mask and social distancing requirements, health officials said.

The district declined to provide preliminary survey numbers from teachers and parents.

Several principals told Chalkbeat that widespread remote teaching would create a logistical nightmare while students are in the building, and that teachers should not be the only staff who can choose to stay home.

So far, the district is requiring teacher assistants and behavior specialists to report to school buildings in January to monitor classrooms where teachers are working remotely. They also plan to use substitute teachers. District officials may tap other positions to monitor classrooms, but they won’t know until survey results come in, said Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman.

Headshot of Danette Stokes
Danette Stokes, president of United Education Association of Shelby County
Malorie Paine

“If we need additional staffing, then that will be provided as needed,” she said.

Phillips said staff who will be required to return to buildings cannot do their jobs from home. She said the district will review exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

“Their normal job is to be in classrooms supporting students,” she said. “We’re extending that option for teachers because we know they can teach the standards and curriculum from home.”

Stokes, UEA’s president, added that many teachers she has heard from are taking care of elderly parents who are more likely to die from the coronavirus.

“They can’t take the risk,” she said. “Their decisions are based on what’s best for them, their families, their health. That’s the only thing you can make your decision on — what’s best for you.”

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