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What we know about the Memphis school reopening plan so far

Shelby County Schools plans for bus drivers to have a backup supply of masks for students who show up at the bus stop without one.
Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools parents have until Saturday to choose whether their child will attend school online or in person for the fall semester.

While about 20,000 have already made their decision with more than 70% of them opting to keep their children home, many others have questions about how reopening school buildings and virtual learning will work and have not chosen yet. The district, which enrolls about 95,000 students, closed buildings in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Teachers will be either teaching online or in person, which is different from the district’s original plan to have teachers in buildings who simultaneously deliver lessons in person and livestream online.

We compiled a list of frequently asked questions and what we know so far from Shelby County Schools officials. Some were answered during the district’s virtual town hall Monday night and in the district’s 36-page reopening plan. Some were answered in our conversation with Superintendent Joris Ray and other district officials Friday.

Have more questions? Let us know at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org and we’ll do our best to find answers. You can also check out Shelby County Schools’ website and simulation videos for more information.

What will a typical online school day look like?

An online school day will last six hours, similar to a traditional school day. During most of the day, teachers will deliver lessons through live video conferencing. Some of the school day will include independent study, where students follow assignments on various online platforms at their own pace. Lessons might include physical activity, art, music, reading, and writing, according to sample schedules in the district’s reopening plan. Students will receive workbooks that correspond to their virtual classes.

Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer, stressed that students will have several breaks throughout the day to “remove yourself from the device and give your eyes a rest.” Principals will communicate specific schedules as the first day of school nears.

How will in-person classes be different than before the pandemic?

Students attending class in school buildings will also follow an online-based curriculum in case coronavirus cases prompt closures and students have to learn from home.

Students and staff will be required to wear face coverings and everyone will undergo daily temperature checks. Elementary and middle school students will have fewer, if any, classroom transitions and stay with the same group of students to reduce frequent interactions. The district is still considering how to limit classroom transitions for high school students. Classrooms will have desks set 6 feet apart and hallways will have hand sanitizer stations. For more information about the district’s cleaning protocols, watch this video.

What happens if my child has a fever at school?

If a student’s temperature hits 100.4 degrees, school staff will send the student to an “isolation room” with a staff member. A parent or guardian will then need to pick up the student and obtain a doctor’s note before the student can return to school, said John Barker, a deputy superintendent. Since there are not enough school nurses for each building, the district is working to train some staff to monitor the isolation room if necessary, said Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman.

If the student waited at a bus stop or walked to school in the heat, district officials plan to retake the student’s temperature to verify the reading is accurate before sending the student to an isolation room. District officials are encouraging parents to check their own temperature and their children’s temperatures daily before school.

At what point would my school close if there’s an outbreak?

That’s yet to be determined. The district is awaiting school guidelines from the Shelby County Health Department. Ray said he is working with health department officials to create a flow chart of decisions so school leaders know what to do if someone tests positive for COVID-19.

The Tennessee Department of Health recommends that school leaders first send home specific classrooms or a hallway of classrooms before resorting to closing the whole building. The department also recommends that students and staff who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for 10 or more minutes be quarantined at home for 14 days. Students can receive instruction online during those days, Ray told school board members.

Will the district provide masks to students and teachers?

Yes. Recently, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency told Shelby County Schools that it will provide districts with cloth masks for teachers and its local branches would provide disposable and cloth masks for students.

Also, bus drivers will have a backup supply of masks for students who show up at the bus stop without a mask. For more information about how bus transportation will change, check out the district’s video.

Food is prepared at the Shelby County Schools nutrition center in March.
Shelby County Schools

How will students learning online receive school lunches?

The district plans to offer a morning and afternoon time slot for parents to pick up school lunches that will last them two or three days. Some will be cold lunches like sandwiches, while others will need to be reheated. Principals will share details about their schools’ procedure with parents in the coming weeks. For more information about school lunches, watch the district’s video.

Will parents be able to change their choice from in person to online if they don’t feel safe?

Rarely and on a case-by-case basis, Phillips said.

“We’re going to take into every consideration that there may be extenuating circumstances for different families and outliers,” she said. “But for the most part, the importance of making commitments is being able to support class ratios and staffing.”

“We have to know what to expect and how many [students] we’re going to have so we can plan for safety,” she said.

Will the district improve its building ventilation systems to help stifle the virus’ spread?

There are no plans to do so at this time. Ray said his team is focusing on reducing risk “on the front end” with measures such as checking temperatures and requiring masks. He also acknowledged the district’s buildings are old and already have unresolved repairs, but “I haven’t received any information from my team to say that any buildings couldn’t sustain in-person instruction,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a high-grade ventilation system that school buildings may not have. Denver schools, for example, are spending $4.9 million in air system upgrades to meet health guidelines. Genard Phillips, who oversees the district’s facilities, was not available for an interview.

If a parent chooses virtual learning for their child, can the student participate in any school-based activities like sports or clubs?

Students whose parents choose online learning would be allowed to participate in sports if the district resumes athletic activities. So far, only individual conditioning has resumed. No final decisions have been made on whether sports will take place in the fall, Phillips said.

Students learning online may be able to participate in clubs if they are offered virtually, Phillips said. The district is looking into what clubs could be offered online if a teacher is willing. But other extracurricular activities that require in-person interaction inside school buildings will not be available to students learning remotely, she said.

“If your parent chose to do virtual learning because they are not comfortable with you coming to school to learn, the question is why are you comfortable to come to school to participate in extracurricular activities?” Phillips said.

Will before and after school childcare still be available?

Yes. As long as school buildings are open for in-person instruction, before and after school care will be available.

Correction, July 14, 2020: A previous version of this story said students learning online would not be able to participate in sports. Jerica Phillips, the district’s spokeswoman, said she misspoke and that those students would be eligible to play if athletic activities resume.

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