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Ruby Buckner (from right) of the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South hands lunches to Camaree Hurd, 9, and his sister, Amani Hurd, 6, at Ed Rice Community Center in Memphis.

Ruby Buckner (from right) of the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South hands lunches to Camaree Hurd, 9, and his sister, Amani Hurd, 6, at Ed Rice Community Center in Memphis.

Live updates on coronavirus and Tennessee schools: Memphis cancels March board meetings

We are monitoring the impact on Tennessee schools and their families as the coronavirus continues to spread, and will post updates here.

Have questions or want to tell us about the impact on your school? Email us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

🔗March 25

🔗Shelby County Schools cancels March board meetings

The school board for Shelby County Schools canceled its regular meetings for March and will not meet until next month, school board chairwoman Miska Clay Bibbs said in a statement Wednesday.

State law allows public officials to continue to meet virtually as the new coronavirus pandemic prompts stricter social distancing measures, but Bibbs said the cancelation was in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s call to extend school closures to April 24 and local stay-at-home orders.

“The support and understanding shown by the community have been greatly appreciated as we work to keep the safety and health of students, employees, and families our top priority,” she said. Shelby County Schools is closed “until further notice,” district officials announced Tuesday.

🔗March 24

🔗Memphis teachers ‘parade’ through neighborhood to wave at kids before stay-at-home order goes into effect

On the last evening before a stay-at-home order goes into effect to stem the spread of the new coronavirus in Memphis, teachers went on a mission to say hi to their students.

From a distance, of course.

Snowden School teachers spent 90 minutes on Monday driving in separate cars through the neighborhoods surrounding the K-8 school in Midtown Memphis. They honked and waved to students, calling them out by name and saying they missed them. Some teachers stood through car sunroofs and had photos of their students taped to their windows.

Students made signs to greet their Snowden School teachers who caravanned through neighborhoods near the school while Shelby County Schools is closed over coronavirus concerns.

Students made signs to greet their Snowden School teachers who caravanned through neighborhoods near the school while Shelby County Schools is closed over coronavirus concerns.

Courtesy of Amy Dixon

“We know it’s scary times because so much is uncertain,” said Shannon Emmons, a first-grade teacher at Snowden. “This was a way to spread joy… We wanted the kids to know that they were not forgotten.”

Emmons arrived at school 45 minutes early because she was so excited to see her students. Linzie Mullins, the school’s music teacher, organized the parade and posted the route online for parents.

Similar “teacher parades” have popped up from Michigan to Texas as school routines across the world have been disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff from a Memphis suburb also paraded Monday.

Snowden students and parents came out to the sidewalk to watch the parade and show off signs they had made in anticipation of the visit. Parent Manda Gibson said her two children had been watching the clock all day and made posters that said, “Thank you” in rainbow block letters. They were out on the sidewalk long before the appointed time “peeking down the street.”

“I’ve been trying to be the strong mom during all this and keep it together,” Gibson said. “But as the teachers were coming down my street, I just couldn’t quite keep it together.”

Memphis schools are closed at least until April 6 and a stay-at-home order goes into effect in the city of Memphis at 6 p.m. Tuesday, meaning only essential trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, gas station or similar places are allowed. So, Monday was the last opportunity for teachers and students to see each other in person.

“Even though we’re not together we’re still united and feel that sense of community,” Emmons said.

Below are videos from the excursion:

🔗March 23

🔗Memphis mayor’s stay-at-home order will not affect student meal distribution, district says

Meal distribution will continue for students amid Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s order for residents to stay at home except for “what is absolutely necessary to take care of essential needs,” according to Shelby County Schools.

The mayor’s order came an hour into the first day of meal distribution on Monday for children who rely on school lunches while classes are canceled.

“Food pickup is essential, so we don’t expect meal distribution to be impacted,” said Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman. Read more here, including how other districts across the nation have responded to similar orders.

🔗March 22

🔗YMCA will distribute food to students after coronavirus diagnosis cancels district’s original plan

The YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South will take over food distribution from Shelby County Schools after a district employee tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Meal distribution will be at the same times and locations the district previously announced: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at 62 locations across the city starting Monday. The district had suspended its original meal plan after a nutrition services employee tested positive for COVID-19. Read more here.

🔗March 20

🔗Memphis school district suspends food distribution after employee tests positive for coronavirus

Shelby County Schools on Friday suspended its meal distribution program for students after an employee in its nutrition department tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The infected employee did not personally handle food, a district spokeswoman said. But the program was halted for now anyway.

“This is very unfortunate, but we cannot proceed and take any chances,” the district wrote parents.

The development means one of the nation’s most impoverished cities has lost the immediate aid of the institution best positioned to feed students amid a public health emergency.

Tennessee’s largest district serves 113,000 students, most of whom are from low income families, and had been ramping up to begin serving 15,000 lunches a day beginning Monday. Due to the spread of COVID-19, schools that already were on spring break will remain closed through at least April 3.

🔗March 19

🔗Emergency state budget passed as Democrats’ attempt to yank voucher funding fails

Voucher opponents in Tennessee’s House of Representatives tried Thursday night to use Gov. Bill Lee’s emergency budget overhaul to block his controversial education savings account program from launching next school year.

It didn’t work.

With the Republican governor watching from upper-tier seating, the House of Representatives voted 69-21 to table an attempt by Rep. Harold Love to shift funding from the voucher program to rural clinics and other health care facilities.

“If we have this health care crisis going on right now, why wouldn’t we take everything we can” and put it toward health care, the Nashville Democrat asked of $41 million listed in the budget for “non-public education.”

The legislature eventually approved the $39 billion spending plan, which slashes hundreds of millions of new dollars that Lee had earmarked for K-12 education only seven weeks earlier. The budget now goes to the governor’s desk for his signature.

The legislature rushed to pass a reduced budget before recessing due to the spread of the new coronavirus. Leaders hope the body can reconvene on June 1 to take up the state’s regular business.

🔗Legislature votes to shelve TNReady testing amid public health emergency

Tennessee lawmakers voted Thursday to remove the burden of testing and other government mandates on school communities this year as classes were canceled statewide due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous votes in both chambers mean that Tennessee is poised to drop state testing requirements this spring and waive the required 180 days of classroom instruction. Gov. Bill Lee is expected to sign the legislation quickly.

Students, teachers, and schools won’t be penalized for choosing not to participate in state testing that includes the TNReady assessment for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high school students.

Other provisions ensure that districts will receive full state funding for the school year, even if students cannot be present, and high school seniors who are on track will graduate on time, even if their classes are canceled. 

The sweeping emergency legislation was crafted this week as the governor urged all districts to shutter public schools for the remainder of March to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory illness. Many school systems have closed until mid-April — when state testing is scheduled to begin — and closures could be extended for much longer, possibly the rest of the school year.

🔗March 18

🔗Memphis parents now have access to instruction guides for students from district, paper copies coming

Shelby County Schools now has links to grade-level instruction guides for parents to download on its website. Paper instructional packets will be given at meal distribution sites on Mondays and Tuesdays. TV and radio programs are coming next week. Bus drivers will deliver instructional packets to students with disabilities at their homes.

The move to at-home instruction prompted Superintendent Joris Ray to call for more funding for take-home technology in a district with half the devices needed for its 95,000 students. Read more here.

🔗In response to pandemic, Gov. Lee slashes proposed budget for schools, retains voucher funding

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration unveiled a revised budget plan Wednesday that halves the proposed increase for teacher pay and cuts most of the education initiatives he announced before the new coronavirus created a public health emergency in Tennessee.

Gone is the $250 million trust fund that the Republican governor proposed to support and grow mental health services for students in the state’s highest-risk schools. Also slashed is $68 million to overhaul literacy instruction, $25 million to bolster low-performing schools in the state-run Achievement School District, and $24 million to help charter schools with building costs.

Lee retained $38 million for education savings accounts, a controversial program set to start this fall to let eligible families in Memphis and Nashville use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.

The bare-bones spending plan is expected to move quickly through committees  as the General Assembly seeks to pass a state budget — its only constitutional requirement — before recessing by the end of the week. 

🔗Emergency school legislation fast-tracked in Tennessee General Assembly

As the legislature barreled toward an emergency recess, several House committees advanced legislation Wednesday to hold students, educators, and schools harmless due to this month’s school closures statewide. The proposal, filed on Tuesday, aims to lift the burden of testing and other government mandates from public school communities disrupted by the ongoing spread of COVID-19, as well as deadly twisters that shredded parts of Middle Tennessee.

🔗March 17

🔗Sweeping Tennessee legislation filed to drop TNReady tests, allow fewer instructional days amid school closures

Tennessee legislative leaders filed a proposal Tuesday to drop state testing and waive the required 180 days of classroom instruction this year as schools shutter statewide without certainty of when they’ll reopen amid a public health emergency.

The proposal aims to lift the burden of testing and other state mandates from public school communities disrupted by the ongoing spread of COVID-19, as well as deadly twisters that shredded parts of Middle Tennessee earlier this month.

The sweeping measure was filed after two days of talks by leaders of the General Assembly, the Department of Education, and school districts.

“We’re trying to cover everything we can think of,” said House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, who is carrying the legislation in his chamber. “This is uncharted territory, and we just don’t know where we’re going.”

The first votes will come Wednesday in committees as the General Assembly seeks to handle essential business before recessing by Saturday.

The proposal also seeks to ensure that districts receive full state funding for the school year, even if students cannot be present, and that high school seniors can graduate on time, even if their classes are canceled. 

🔗March 16

🔗Shelby County Schools extends closure by one week

In response to Gov. Bill Lee urging that districts close until March 31, Shelby County Schools announced Monday evening it will extend its closure.

But rather than have students return to school mid-week, district leaders said they plan for students to return April 6 — one week later than the district announced last week.

🔗Governor urges all Tennessee schools to close; Schwinn seeks federal waivers on TNReady testing

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday urged all Tennessee districts to shutter schools “as soon as practically possible” for the rest of March to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

All public schools should be closed by this Friday, he said, encouraging a shutdown that will affect almost 1 million students and their families.

Districts that had not already canceled classes for the month quickly responded. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state’s second largest district, announced that schools will be closed through at least April 3. 

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday requested a federal waiver related to statewide TNReady testing, which is set to begin mid-April. 

Tennessee also received two federal waivers providing schools with flexibility to prepare meals and then to deliver them to low-income students who depend on school meals to stay fed.

And the General Assembly rushed toward passing a balanced budget and recessing before the week’s end, which could leave big education issues such as the governor’s comprehensive literacy proposal on the table until lawmakers reconvene.

The developments spotlight the hour-by-hour decisions happening at the state Capitol in response to the global pandemic.

🔗Superintendent: Memphis students will receive instruction via packets, online, TV, and radio

Shelby County Schools is working on creating paper instructional packets for students, online classes, and TV and radio programs so students can continue to learn during the unexpected break, Superintendent Joris Ray told On Point, a national NPR radio show.

The district owns a TV and radio station but using them as virtual learning tools would be new.

Ray hopes the virtual learning plan will make up for lost instructional time while schools are closed next week. By offering more than just online classes, Ray said more students could participate given that many families do not have internet access at home.

“Next week we’re going to hit the ground running,” Ray said. Read more in our story.

🔗March 15

🔗Shelby County Schools closes central office and institutes remote work guidelines

Central office employees for Shelby County Schools will work remotely while schools are closed over concerns of coronavirus spreading, the district announced Sunday afternoon.

This reverses part of Superintendent Joris Ray’s announcement Thursday that administrative buildings would remain open while schools would be closed until March 30. The decision was made from Centers for Disease Control and Shelby County Health Department guidance “to limit in-person contact during the COVID-19 outbreak,” a statement said.

“As one of the largest employers in Shelby County and Tennessee, our focus at SCS is on protecting students and staff during this public health crisis,” Ray said in a statement. “While some in-person work such as cleaning, maintenance and security is necessary to operate the district, we aim to increase social distancing and decrease the likelihood of disease transmission with this strategy.”

The district stressed that there will be “no impact to any employee’s pay as a result,” and that parents can still call the district’s parent welcome center and request student records.

The announcement also clarified that libraries and community centers that will be closed starting March 18 will still operate as student meal distribution locations as drive-up sites.

🔗March 13

🔗TNReady testing is still on — for now

Tennessee will leave it up to the legislature to decide whether to scrap state testing this spring as the new coronavirus spreads.

TNReady testing is scheduled to start as soon as April 13, though school districts have some leeway to decide exactly when. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn held a phone conference with superintendents Friday to discuss details.

The U.S. Department of Education also released guidance Thursday saying that states might be able to skip the required tests for closed schools this year. At least one state has asked the federal government to allow them to cancel testing already.

🔗Take-home school work coming for Shelby County Schools

A day after announcing that classes would be canceled until March 30, Shelby County Schools officials say students will eventually have some instructional materials soon. From the district’s FAQ for parents and students:

Will there be learning opportunities available while students are out of classes?
Yes, our academics team is currently developing a plan to provide grade-specific instructional packets for all students while schools are closed. More information will be shared with families.

🔗March 12

🔗Shelby County Schools and Achievement School District to close

Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District will close starting Friday and reopen March 30, a week after spring break, because of “rapidly changing conditions” of COVID-19, the local district said.

The extended closure for health and safety concerns raises a new wave of concerns for parents, including where to find childcare or get meals. During spring break, many parents were planning to send their children to the Shelby County Schools’ new spring break academy for small group learning, but that is also canceled.

The decision to close schools came a couple hours before Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency and said any shutdowns or cancelations should be left up to local districts, institutions, and businesses.

Following the announcement, community agencies immediately jumped in to make sure students would not go hungry without school-provided meals.

Collections and food drives have already popped up, with more likely to follow as Memphis schools are closed for more than two weeks. Shelby County Schools is working to finalize a plan to prepare takeaway lunches beginning March 23. Most of the district’s students live in poverty and depend on breakfast and lunches served at school. At least one charter school network is also planning to hand out lunch to students for a week.

We have a running list of community resources. Let us know what you’re hearing by emailing us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

  • Shelby County Schools plans to prepare takeaway lunches at several county locations from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. beginning March 23. Details are still being worked out, but a statement said the distribution was the “least-risky exposure” for students and families.
  • Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) does not have a student-focused plan, but will deliver an additional week of meals to all its clients. They are encouraging families applying for emergency assistance to begin that process online, if possible, to limit traffic at their building.
  • The Mid-South Food Bank is assembling 14-day food boxes with nonperishable food for low-income families and other vulnerable populations. Donations can be made online.

See complete list here. We will continue to update it.

🔗March 10

🔗Coronavirus quarantine amplifies old concerns about cleanliness in Memphis schools

When Treadwell Elementary School teacher Gretchen Biere walked into her classroom Tuesday morning, she immediately knew it hadn’t been cleaned the previous night after a tumultuous school day when staff, parents, and students learned a school employee had been quarantined for coming into contact with a COVID-19 patient.

The trash in her classroom hadn’t been taken out, and the trash can outside a nearby bathroom was full of paper towels. In another teacher’s classroom, a child’s spilled drink had left a sticky spot on the floor that was still there the next day.

“Logistically, the district is promising all these grand gestures of cleaning and giving us more supplies and yet … our floor isn’t cleaned,” said Biere, who teaches a second-grade English-Spanish dual language class.

🔗March 9

🔗Memphis parents concerned over school employee’s quarantine

While some parents were satisfied with the “cautionary quarantine” of an employee assigned to two Memphis schools who came in contact with the area’s first COVID-19 patient, other parents are keeping their children home.

Confusion erupted Monday over delayed communication to Spanish-speaking parents and at least one teacher urging students to call their parents to pick them up early from Treadwell Middle School. Long car lines resulted as anxious parents waited outside.

The events highlighted the effects of not automatically communicating important school information in languages other than English.

About 23% of Treadwell Elementary and Treadwell Middle students are learning English and nearly 40% are Hispanic, many of whom may have parents who are more likely to only speak Spanish.

🔗March 5

🔗First Tennessee case of new coronavirus prompts school closures in Williamson County

A Tennessee man who tested positive for the new coronavirus has spurred two school districts in Williamson County to close for a two-day “deep cleaning” of classrooms, while state officials emphasized Thursday that the health risk to the general public is low.

The 44-year-old man is quarantined at his Williamson County home with other members of his family after returning from a business trip to Boston and showing mild symptoms of the respiratory illness. He is the first confirmed case in Tennessee.

Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District — located south of Nashville — will be closed Friday and Monday as part of their preparedness plans and “out of an abundance of caution,” according to one statement.

The infected man has one child who attends Battle Ground Academy, a private school in Franklin, which also will be closed on Friday. In a statement, academy leaders said “there is no evidence that the student was infectious at school.”

Tennessee is one of 18 states with coronavirus cases since the first one was reported on Jan. 21 in Oregon. Public health officials have tried to stay ahead of the outbreak, but the disease has moved beyond containment to mitigation.

The fast-spreading illness known as COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, and has become a worldwide epidemic, killing 3,200 people and infecting another 93,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. Currently, there is no vaccine.

🔗February 27

🔗No coronavirus plans yet, but Tennessee schools are on alert

School districts across Tennessee are being told to stay on top of developments involving the coronavirus and to start crafting contingency plans now.

In a spot check of the largest districts and several others from around the state, superintendents are instructing principals to prepare for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in their areas and heed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and their local health departments. 

However, few if any districts have issued specific protocols for schools to follow, such as planning for remote online classes should schools be forced to close.