A.B. Hill Elementary (Photo: Shelby County Schools)
A.B. Hill Elementary (Photo: Shelby County Schools)

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari praised Shelby County Schools’ plan to bring students back to classrooms amid pressure from state leaders and a steady decline in COVID-19 cases.

“The Return Stronger plan to phase in classroom learning is a plan to safely reopen schools – and keep schools open,” Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said in a statement. “This approach prioritizes learning while also respecting the health of students, their families and our school staff based on resources and local health factors.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The school system announced Friday, Feb. 12, it plans to return children in prekindergarten through fifth grade on March 1 and students in grades six through 12 on March 8. Shelby County Schools has taught students virtually since last March because of the impact of COVID-19 on the community. 

Shelby County has reported nearly 85,500 COVID-19 cases since last March, with 1,432 deaths. The spread statewide began to fall in mid-January.

Superintendent Joris Ray made the announcement to renew in-classroom learning just days after Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown accused the system of sticking with virtual learning “out of spite” after Gov. Bill Lee urged the system to reopen during his State of the State address on Feb. 8.

“It’s purely political. They are listening to the (teachers) union and not to the parents,” Kelsey told the Senate Education Committee last week after a Shelby County parent testified about the difficulty of running a small business with children at home for virtual classes.

Akbari took issue with Kelsey’s statement, saying she had spoken with Shelby County School Board members about their plans to bring students back to classes. At mid-week, the only thing that hadn’t been announced was a date to return.

“Working together, Shelby County Schools and local health officials are doing what is right for our community regardless of political pressure. Our mission now must be to get vaccines in the arms of teachers and support staff as soon as possible,” Akbari said in her statement.Shelby County Schools logo

Kelsey is sponsoring legislation that would give an executive order by the governor to return students to class statewide authority over decisions by local health departments. Other proposals in the Legislature would take the teeth away from public health boards, turning them into advisory bodies and giving decisions for health policy to county mayors.

Gov. Lee was critical of the two remaining districts in the state that had not opened for in-classroom teaching. Metro Nashville Public Schools announced a phase-in plan just days before the governor’s address, and Shelby County Schools followed a week later.

Shelby County Schools students will be asked to wear masks during class changes and while in class. They’ll also have their temperatures checked when they arrive at school, and they’ll be given opportunities to wash hands and use sanitizer during the day.

“The District has stood alone in Memphis and Shelby County against mounting pressure to reopen while COVID-19 cases spiked in our community,” the school district said on its website. “From the onset of this pandemic, we’ve diligently planned for a stronger return to our buildings, but we have had no control of this virus or the community conditions that would allow us to go back.”

The school district pointed out it faces “potential” state legislation that could affect funding. But it said declining COVID-19 cases and the availability of vaccines were “key factors” in the plan to bring students back safely. Lawmakers have said they plan to bring legislation that would allow the state to cut funds to districts that don’t open for 70 days during this school year and 180 days next year.

A plan also surfaced to give the state commissioner of education the ability to cut federal funds to districts that don’t open for in-classroom teaching.

Shelby County Schools are to revert to regular bell times March 1, and buses will start running then as well, but virtual instruction will continue for students whose families chose that method.

Municipal school districts in Shelby County have been using hybrid models with a mixture of virtual and in-classroom learning since the school year began.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

State Rep. Mark White, chairman of the House Education Administration Committee, said Monday he is “encouraged” by the district’s decision to return to classrooms.

“Our children have been in a virtual education world for one year, and it’s time to return to the classroom!” he said in an email statement. “On the state level we are putting programs in place to address the loss of learning from the past year. I congratulate SCS and Dr. (Joris) Ray on this decision.”

During a recent special session on education in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature approved new summer school programs, a third-grade reading assessment to determine if children are ready for fourth grade, $43 million in teacher pay increases and a measure to hold students, teachers and schools “harmless” for poor performance on the TNReady test.