As Shelby County Schools weighs options to reopen school buildings in August, a group of 15 educators, health experts, and business leaders, along with a parent and a student representative, will guide decisions on what that process looks like.
Superintendent Joris Ray announced the creation of the task force Monday and reiterated that a plan to return to school could be a mix of in-person and online instruction. It’s still not clear when the 2020-21 school year will start, but Ray said he expects to present a school re-entry plan based on the task force’s input in early July.
“We are setting our sights on a return in the fall that will not be like any other first day of school. This is something we have never experienced before,” he said at a press conference outside of East High School.
The decisions the task force will help shape the day-to-day operations of Memphis schools for the 2020-21 school year as districts across the nation grapple with creating best practices to keep students and staff safe from contracting COVID-19.
The group will advise the district as it creates protocols on issues such as what social distancing measures should be in place, whether students and staff should wear face coverings, and how those decisions could affect school transportation and meals. The group will give advice on whether the district should extend the school year, make school days longer, or have school on some Saturdays, and how to communicate the district’s plans to the public. They also will provide input on how to give students emotional support if a family member has died from COVID-19, lost a job, or other pandemic-related traumas.
DaCharius Brooks, the student representative who will be a senior at East High in the fall, said he appreciated the “open line of communication” the Student Congress has had with Ray’s administration while buildings have been closed. Still, his peers are eager to know answers to the biggest questions facing the task force.
“Are we ever going to go back to normal? Everyone is in a state of confusion,” he said.
In addition to Brooks, below are the names and positions of the other task force members:
- Miska Clay-Bibbs, school board chairwoman
- Mark Billingsley, county commission chairman
- Michalyn Easter-Thomas, teacher and Memphis city councilwoman
- Alisa Haushalter, director of Shelby County Health Department
- Steevon Hunter, principal of Kirby High School
- Tom Marino, executive director of the Poplar Foundation
- Joann Massey, parent at White Station High School and director of women and minority owned business development for the City of Memphis
- Keith Norman, vice president of government affairs at Baptist Memorial Healthcare Corporation and pastor of First Baptist Church Broad
- Beverly Robertson, president of Greater Memphis Chamber
- Patrice Jordan Robinson, Memphis city council chairwoman
- Danette Stokes, teacher at Robert R. Church Elementary and incoming president for United Education Association of Shelby County
- Gabriela Toro, principal of Newcomer International Center
- Jeffrey S. Warren, physician and Memphis city councilman
- Kevin B. Willis, Sr., founder and pastor of New Life of Memphis
Sarah Carpenter, the leader of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said she was concerned the group’s lone parent representative came from a school with fewer students from low-income families than the district’s average school. For example, accommodating online learning will be a lot harder for low-income families, she said.
“Most parents at White Station don’t deal with what parents at Melrose High or Douglass High deal with,” Carpenter told Chalkbeat. “There’s nothing wrong with parents at White Station High School, but you got to reach in the trenches and get parents.”
Massey, the parent representative Carpenter referenced, said she plans to get input from a wide range of parents through an upcoming online portal and also offered her Twitter message inbox. Massey cited her experience as a founding board member for a charter school network in Frayser, one of the poorest areas in Memphis.
“I want to hear from them. I don’t represent just White Station, I represent parents,” Massey said. “We will hear those parents. That is my promise.”
Robertson, a business leader on the task force, said the task force’s recommendations will likely go beyond the immediate crisis. If remote learning becomes necessary during another emergency, she hopes Shelby County Schools will be ready.
“We’ve got to learn how to make the school system more resilient for other instances that may come along,” she said. “It will help to minimize the trauma and maximize our ability to educate students.”