Coronavirus presents daunting digital challenge for SCS

By , Daily Memphian Published: March 19, 2020 4:05 AM CT

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

Shelby County Schools, caught between not knowing if school will resume April 6 or not, is hastily putting together an online learning program to accommodate some 113,000 students, many of whom it expects do not have digital access.

It is using a number of platforms students and teachers already know — i-Ready, Edgenuity, ACT guides and Kaplan — and hoping to use the district’s broadcast services division to offer virtual learning.

Shelby County Schools distributing lunches across city

But with teachers off on break this week and needing to rest, as Superintendent Joris Ray said Wednesday, the district will have as little as two weeks to involve teachers in the planning.

Beginning Monday, SCS will offer paper copies of the week’s learning guides with grade-specific lessons in language arts and math. The packets, which International Paper Co. is printing for free, are for families that do not have computers. They may be picked up at each of the 60 food distribution sites on Mondays and Tuesdays for the next two weeks.

Who will do the teaching is not clear.

“We encourage the rest of our families to download the academic guides on our website,” Ray said. “More information will be shared with families about this plan at the end of the week.”

New guides will be issued each week that align with the standards and assignments for the week.

District officials are not sure what percentage of students have digital access, how it will work to have teachers teaching from home and if families have one laptop, how siblings will share one screen.

For families with computers and wi-fi, the discovery will start next week when they will be asked to log in and get acquainted with the learning portal, sans the anxiety of tests and homework.

“Basically, next week we want to engage our students. Then after that, we will give more instruction,” said Deputy Superintendent Angela Whitelaw.

“But for the first two weeks, we want to just get started because we know this is new territory for us all.” 

After Wednesday’s press conference, which included a health department update of the coronavirus situation locally, she said it wasn’t clear if the schoolwork would be graded or if school would even be in session.

The state of Kansas has decided to cancel school for the rest of the year. Other states are expected to follow.

If school is on, the issue is magnified by the digital divide in Shelby County. According to U.S. Census data from 2014-2018, 83% of households in the county reported owning a computer; 73% had a broadband subscription.

For Denise Tronsor - a mother whose teenage children attend an international American school in Hong Kong and are back, tethered its online portal while they wait for normalcy to return - online learning has enough fits and starts and plain complications without being rolled out overnight.

“In our school, every student has to supply their own laptop,” Tronsor said. “They already had all the school software loaded and had an ID for online education.”

That makes a difference, she said, because it symbolizes the enormous amount of groundwork already laid and at the same time levels the field because everyone has access to the technology that makes it work. 

Because Hong Kong also subsidizes digital access, she says more than 90% of its citizens have access. The city also learned during the 2003 SARS outbreak how necessary robust online learning is and went to work.

“They realized they needed to really step up the game,” she said, calling it a dry run for what Hong Kong now has to keep school going in unending weeks and months of coronavirus.

The result for her teenagers has been “just plug and play.”

As a public school parent here before the family moved to Hong Kong on a FedEx assignment, Tronsor has a pretty good idea what SCS is facing.

“I was very active in the PTO at Grahamwood, White Station Middle and White Station High School. By default, I can tell you from the start, a majority of these kids will not have access to a computer at all,” she said.

If they do, she doubts it will be a “new, whiz-bang model” and expects it likely will have “zero” internet access.

“If we are trying to isolate in place, but you have to leave the house just to get internet access, that won’t really work,” she said.

Her children, twins Sam and Kate, 15, attend an online school now structured exactly like the day would be if they were in Hong Kong. Each class meets with a teacher. Attendance is taken. Class starts on time. They must sit at a table or desk while they are connected. Lounging in pajamas is not allowed.

“I thought it was great when we first started,” Sam said. “I got to sleep in and have more freedom.”

But as time has worn on with no sign of regular classes resuming, she can tell she’s lost some motivation.

“When you sit in front of a computer screen, it gets easy to slack off or say, ‘I can do it later.’ ”

Chemistry labs are boring, she said, because students watch experiments. Ditto for physical education.

She feels a new responsibility for her learning, which after a month or so, has become weighty.

“We have to be independent in our learning, and it gets tiring. It’s a lot to keep up with,” Sam said.

The Tronsor children have computers that work and a nearby parent to help with problems or make sure the learning gets done. And because she has health care insurance, Tronsor says she and many parents in Hong Kong aren’t having to making hard decision about whether to work or stay home.

It’s possible that SCS students in their same East Memphis block are facing three months or more of isolation in an online school system being quickly ramped up. 

“Hong Kong probably had to put its system together somewhat on the fly before,” Tronsor said.

And to be fair, she said, her children attend a private school that is comparable to higher-end private schools in Memphis where digital learning has been developed for years.

“SCS is caught between a rock and hard place. They don’t have money for basic courses. They are having to cut so much.

“In that environment, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of spending money for some eventuality that may happen or is so far into the future that they really can’t plan for it. It’s tough,” Tronsor said.

Superintendent Ray is counting on families to help make the learning work, noting that the district homework hotline, (901) 416-1234, will continue “for the moms and dads and uncles and aunts and grandparents who are going to need some help with some of this work.”

The state homework website,, will also be working, Ray said.

With the weight of what is ahead, Wednesday Ray asked the community to wrap its arms around SCS children, who are scared and worried, he said, about what coronavirus means for them, including being on the short end of the digital divide.

“This public health crisis has amplified the need for additional funding and investments to ensure we are equipped with technology. And that’s one-on-one devices to close the digital gap and alleviate barriers to online academic resources,” he said.

“We are so thankful for every person who has reached out to express a desire to support Shelby County Schools during this crisis.”

Walmart donated $10,000 Wednesday to help. The district’s foundation has set up a fund through School Seed (, hoping people will give for digital access.

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Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray digital divide
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


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