Memphians demands district expand virtual learning options to stop the spread of COVID in schools

Four weeks after the start of the school year, a growing choir of parents from Memphis is lobbying schools in Shelby County to be more aggressive in creating a virtual learning option as the problems of security are increasing amid an increase in COVID cases in the community.

But district officials made it clear in an emotional school board meeting on Tuesday night that this is unlikely to happen, citing the strict conditions Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has decided to grant waivers to the state’s e-learning restrictions.

Schwinn said on Friday she would allow school districts to move severely affected schools or classrooms to virtual or blended learning, as outlined in each district’s continuous learning plan. But Schwinn maintained his position that change couldn’t happen district-wide.

Memphis Deputy Superintendent John Barker told Tuesday’s board meeting that Schwinn’s announcement will most likely benefit small school districts, as it will only grant waivers if there is no not enough adults to cover the classroom.

With its strong staff of central office workers, many of whom have teaching licenses, schools in Shelby County are unlikely to have the same teacher shortage as some smaller districts, Barker said.

“What people have heard about e-learning is not really a viable opportunity for a district like us like Metro Nashville like Hamilton County which actually has the ability to go keep school. open, ”Barker said.

Superintendent Joris Ray said school officials have received threats warning them that if the entire district switches to e-learning or blended learning, that funding, the board and the superintendent could be cut. . He did not specify the source of these threats.

“There have been a number of threats on this particular issue. I’m not sure what ramifications can happen, ”he told a busy crowd who gathered in the council auditorium on Tuesday night to share their frustrations with the district’s management of their third year. school in a pandemic.

During the public comment section at the start of the meeting, speakers denounced what they see as dangerous schools. Many have urged Ray to take a bolder stand against Governor Lee and officials in the state capital who oppose widespread distance education.

“There must be a conscience above the law. A conscience above what Nashville might tell you to do. A conscience that compels us to act and behave differently because there is a global pandemic going on, and we have to ask, Dr Ray, at what cost is my mother’s life worth? said Justin Pearson, an activist from Memphis and the son of a Shelby County schools educator.

Pearson mentioned the local students and teachers who died of complications from COVID this school year and asked the board and the superintendent if they “would rather carry coffins” than “draw the wrath of Bill Lee.”

“It is injustice that we are fighting against,” said Pearson.

As of August 26, 987 staff have been diagnosed with COVID and 155 students, according to the district recordings.

The district does not have a vaccination mandate for teachers, but has continued to require masks at school despite the governor’s decree which states that families can request to withdraw from this policy for any reason. The Shelby County government and parents of immunocompromised students have taken legal action to try to quash the executive order.

SCS currently operates an online academy, Memphis Virtual School, but it is only available to students in Grades 4 through 12 and has an enrollment capacity of 1,500 students. A district spokesperson said Wednesday that 900 students are currently enrolled in the virtual school – more than triple a typical school year – and administrators are reviewing hundreds of pending applications.

With no more options to virtually learn or telecommute, teachers and students who do not want to return in person due to pre-existing conditions face a precarious classroom situation, said Raquel Williams, teacher and head of Memphis-Shelby. County Education Association.

Williams also expressed concern about the Shelby County Schools’ new online dashboard of district-wide COVID cases. She believes it doesn’t go far enough and said teachers and parents should receive daily, not weekly, updates of coronavirus cases in their schools and classrooms.

And she challenged the district to change its policy on staff absences due to quarantine.

“Teachers should not be forced to use sick days during quarantine,” she said to applause.

Recently, Adrienne Battle, Principal of Metro Nashville Public Schools, announced that vaccinated teachers will get additional paid sick leave. Memphis board member Kevin Woods supported the idea of ​​a similar policy in Memphis.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Woods also joined his fellow council members in congratulating the superintendent and his “amazing team” for their handling during the pandemic. The annual assessment of the Superintendent’s Board of Directors was shared Tuesday night and he received high marks in each category.

Woods praised the superintendent for his “impressive” efforts to raise awareness of vaccinations and improve access to COVID tests, including mobile test units that rotate in every school.

Woods rebuffed the feeling that the district had failed to take bold and necessary steps to keep students and staff safe.

“This council has risen. Your attorney general has risen. Our children have risen; they wear masks, ”Woods said. “So this whole conversation about stepping back from going back to where we were, it’s a non-starter. My daughter wants to go back to school, and as long as we do everything we can to keep our kids safe, of our adults, let’s keep them in the classroom.

But parent and pastor Sara Corum who watched the entire meeting online shared one of the less-discussed consequences of the e-learning controversy.

“My two have just come out of a quarantine of 10 days of exposure. During the quarantine, they were given work to do but no instruction because their teachers are not allowed to teach them at home, ”she said.

With hesitation and concern, she sent them back to school after quarantine ended.

“We don’t have a lot of viable options,” she said. “And yet, we have the impression of playing Russian roulette with our children. No parent should ever be in the position we are in. Never.

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