Shelby County Schools’ return to in-person will be gradual, Joris Ray says

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 26, 2020 1:19 PM CT | Published: September 24, 2020 4:44 PM CT

When Shelby County Schools students move from an all-online or virtual school day, it will be a gradual move back to in-person learning with students in classrooms.

Educators plead for patience amid pandemic

And Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said Thursday, Sept. 24, he hopes to have some further word on when that could happen “in the next coming days.”

“We are working tirelessly with our health professionals to see when is a good time to transition to in-person learning,” Ray said on the WKNO Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.” “But whatever we do, we are going to do it in phases. We are not going to all go back at one time.”

Ray said a school year without a return to school buildings is “not ideal” but added there are not perfect scenarios for a school year in a global pandemic.

“Of course we want our children back in school,” Ray said. “I don’t want to make any bones about that. Yes, I want them back in school, but I want them back in school when it’s safe.”

It’s been almost a month since the school year began for the state’s largest school system with all virtual classes — a later start to the school year locally than is normally the case and a change from the initial plan to offer students and their parents the option of online or in-person classes.

Before the change, more than 75% of parents picked the online option for their children.

Meanwhile, the county’s six suburban school systems are a mixture of online and in-person classes with two private schools — Christian Brothers High School and the upper school of St. George’s Independent School — recently switching to online only after confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus reported among those attending those schools.

“A majority of our students are Black and brown students and the coronavirus has definitely hit our community drastically,” Ray said. “Many of our parents don’t have access to health care. It’s about not contributing to the community spread. When you are averaging 170-plus new case a day, I think us remaining virtual as of now is the right thing to do.”

That includes his decision to suspend fall sports, including high school football, which Ray admitted has been an “unpopular” decision with some student protests.

But Ray pushed back against claims from some of the athletes that sports is their only path to higher education.

“It has unmasked the sobering reality that many of our student athletes view sports as their only escape from suffocating poverty,” he said of the effect of the pandemic over the past six months.

“It grieves my heart when I hear students say that sports is their only way out. I know sports connects them to school,” Ray said. “Don’t get me wrong. But sports is not their only way out. … Sports is a tool but should not be the only opportunity and exposure for our students. We still believe that education is the great equalizer.”

SCS fall athletes denied face-to-face talk with superintendent

Ray says he met with student athletes as well as communicated with them by text and email on their concerns.

Adding to the pressure for a return to schools and classrooms is a claim Wednesday by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that third-graders in the state’s public schools could see a 50% decrease in their proficiency rates for reading and 65% drop in math.

National researchers used data from the state and information from some school districts for a group of 30,000 students earlier in the school year to come to the conclusion.

Ray said SCS is performing its own diagnostics this week as it has been gauging how much students lost in retention over an extended period that includes not just the normal summer break but also the abrupt end of the 2019-2020 school year locally at around the spring break mark.

Report: Tenn. students suffer learning loss due to pandemic shutdown

“I’m concerned as well with — as we call it — COVID slide,” Ray said. “Our teachers, they are well prepared… We’re going to continue to see where our students are. We are offering a fall learning academy as an option. Many students will be on fall break. We will have classes.”

As to concerns from parents of younger elementary school-aged students about the improbability of keeping a child that age in front of a screen for even an hour at a time, Ray said virtual learning doesn’t mean online all the time and varies activities to keep students engaged.

“We built in a number of breaks,” he said. “Our teachers — they are the glue that holds everything together. They stay in constant communication with our parents. It’s going to take a little bit more effort. It’s going to take us to provide that engaging and exciting message virtually. But we’ve been doing it.”

“Behind the Headlines” is hosted by Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian. It airs on WKNO Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 8:30 a.m. It can also be seen on the Behind the Headlines Podcast.

Listen to the podcast or watch this week’s episode at the top of the page.

Produced by Natalie Van Gundy

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Google Play.



Shelby County Schools Joris Ray online learning Behind The Headlines

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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