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Online or in-person learning? Memphis parents tell district leaders what they want when school restarts

Superintendent Joris Ray presents at a listening session at Douglass High School on Monday.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

Some Memphis parents want students to return to school in person in the fall. Other parents want online learning to continue. Still others say the district should offer both and let families choose what works for them.

Shelby County Schools gathered input from all sides at listening sessions and through emails this week.

Jerica Richardson, whose child attends Downtown Elementary School, wonders if online learning at home is “genuinely realistic” for many families.

“I work every day. Where is my daughter going to do virtual school at?” she asked. When school buildings closed in March, Richardson said her daughter was not able to access several of the district’s academic online resources by herself. “So when she’s doing work, we’re doing work.”

Richardson was one of a handful of in-person attendees at a Douglass High School session Monday. The district limited in-person attendance to 25 people to prevent spreading the coronavirus, but allowed people to email questions and comments before the meeting. The listening sessions are part of a larger effort to gather parent, teacher, and student input about opening school buildings in the fall.

Shelby County Schools enrolls about 95,000 students. Charter schools, which enroll about 18,500 students, can make separate decisions about instruction for next school year.

The district’s parent survey on reopening schools has so far collected 12,000 responses. About 45% of those who responded said they would “definitely” choose online instruction for their child, the most common answer. Another 27% said they would either “probably” or “definitely” choose to attend school in person. Some people who were watching the livestream and commenting on Facebook on Monday said a detailed plan for in-person instruction may sway parents. Superintendent Joris Ray is expected to share plan details in early July.

“Every little thing that we once took for granted, now my team is going back and looking at every aspect of a school day,” he said. “I promise you.”

Board member Michelle McKissack attended the session Monday donning a face shield that the district is considering for student use. She said it was more comfortable than wearing a mask.

Ray said he is preparing for the possibility that all instruction could be online if coronavirus cases surge, but he also is planning for safety measures for in-person classes.

“We haven’t hit the second wave of the virus,” Ray said. “But if we do have a second wave of the virus, I’m very confident that how we’re going to have instruction virtually ... our students won’t miss a beat.”

But depending on when that might happen, some students may not have a laptop or internet access. The district plans to begin distributing laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots in August and distribution will likely stretch until November.

During the listening session, a district spokeswoman read some comments and suggestions submitted by email. The commenters’ names were not read during the meeting.

As the Shelby County Health Department reports more confirmed cases of coronavirus, one parent said schools are likely to be ill-equipped to enforce safety measures, noting that teachers already ask parents to contribute hand sanitizer and tissues because schools have a low supply.

“I do not think it’s safe for any students or staff to return this fall,” the parent said. “I have been testing my 7 and 11-year-old and they can’t keep their masks on properly for even 30 minutes. They struggle with washing their hands properly at home, so I know they won’t do it at school.”

A teacher said “expecting students and staff to follow social distancing guidelines is delusional and coming from individuals who have never taught.”

One teacher, who also has a child in the district, said they prefer that parents and teachers have the option to attend school online or in person like other districts have proposed.

“What works for one family may not work for another.”

The district is hosting another listening session at 5:45 p.m. Thursday at Ridgeway Middle School with limited capacity. You can email a comment or question between noon and 4 p.m. Thursday to Livesteams will be available on Facebook and other channels. You can view the district’s presentation below:

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