Collierville, Arlington school leaders review summer of pandemic changes

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 01, 2020 6:13 PM CT | Published: October 01, 2020 4:51 PM CT

With fall break just around the corner for the county’s seven public school systems, the leaders of those systems have some breathing room to look at the plans they made before the school year started and the adjustments made later.

Collierville Schools Superintendent Gary Lilly says the plans have changed but so has the basic information about the pandemic — “the information, the science, the number of cases,” he said on the WKNO Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

“So, do I think we will be required to make changes, to adjust along the way? Absolutely we will,” he said. “I wish that we could settle into a great spot where we knew things were going to be relatively stable for a while. But we just don’t have that assurance.”

Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Jeff Mayo said it is “against my grain to start school and make changes.”

“I don’t want it to appear that we don’t have a plan, that we’re not organized,” Mayo said on the same program. “But I told my administrators from day one there is no shame in changing the game plan at any point during this school year because we don’t know what’s coming at us next.”

Both school systems use hybrid models for certain grade levels — students attending online or virtual classes two days of the week and in person another two days and then all students going virtual for the fifth day of the week.

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Arlington uses the hybrid model for high school only. Collierville uses it for middle school and high school. In both school systems, elementary students have the option of virtual classes over in-person classes. Arlington also has the online option for middle school students.

In Collierville, the elementary and middle school grades use separate teachers for virtual and in-person classes but the same teacher for virtual and in-person in high school classes.

<strong>Gary Lilly</strong>

Gary Lilly

“We really wanted the breadth of classes to be available for those who chose the virtual option,” Lilly said. “And the only way to really make that happen was to have our regular classroom teachers do both. That is quite a challenge.”

In Arlington, there are separate online and in-person teachers at the elementary level with a mix in middle school but no teacher who is teaching an in-person class with other students online at the same time.

“Initially, we started off with having teachers do both at that grade level,” Mayo said of the elementary schools. “And we realized very quickly that that was not the best-case scenario by talking with our teachers and getting feedback from our parents, our principals. So we quickly made a change.”

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High school teachers do online and in-person in the Arlington school system, reflecting the transition to specific subject classes with different teachers by subject matter in a normal school year.

<strong>Jeff Mayo</strong>

Jeff Mayo

“It’s very difficult to replicate that in an online environment or have the teacher that has the knowledge base to be able to teach that class,” Mayo said. “So we found that it was the best solution to have those teachers at the high school level to do both. It’s very overwhelming at times for the teachers.”

“But at this point, they seem to pretty much have found balance with how to juggle those online students with those in-person students at the same time,” he said.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest school system, originally had a similar plan to offer parents a choice of online or in-person classes with separate faculties for each. But the plan was scrapped before the SCS school year began Aug. 31 with all virtual classes.

SCS Superintendent Joris Ray said on the program a week ago that at some point the school system of 95,000 students will likely make a gradual return to in-person classes, possibly with a hybrid schedule like that used by the six suburban school systems in the county.

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Ray has cited the disparate impact of the virus on the health and finances of its students and their families. Programs support and assist students through remote learning centers and wi-fi hot spots, along with a fall break academy for students during the Oct. 12-16 break.

Arlington has two “social transition specialists” whom Mayo says act as social workers to find and work with families and students facing similar challenges. The Collierville school system has a full-time social worker.

Collierville has 9,100 students across a high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools. Arlington has a high school and a middle school with two elementary schools and a total of 4,800 students.

Mayo and Lilly were hesitant to compare the pandemic plans of the various school systems.

“It’s difficult. Whenever you scale up doing something that is completely different, there are changes,” Lilly said. “Listen, I don’t fault any school system for whatever path they took.”

Mayo has similar reservations but said the planning process is probably similar no matter the size of the school system.

“You pretty much have to do the same planning — whether you are doing it for 200 students or 2,000 students,” he said. “Your planning process pretty much is the same and then you just have to replicate that plan more times when you are on a larger scale.”

Collierville High School goes remote for two weeks, 8 confirmed COVID-19 cases

Lilly closed Collierville High School to in-person classes, switching to virtual classes only, for two weeks at the start of the school year after a cluster of COVID-19 cases there. The Shelby County Health Department ordered those who tested positive excluded from school and quarantined.

“They did not make us close,” Lilly said of his decision. “But based on the number of people affected by the quarantine, it made more sense to close for two weeks.”

Meanwhile, Tennessee education officials recommended that schools with outbreaks or clusters of the virus should work first toward sealing off those parts of a school by classroom or by sections of the building instead of closing the entire school.

Mayo said the health guidance and practices from various sources kept changing during the summer.

“We have seen more stability, I will have to say, since school opened with the guidance and the changes that have been thrust upon us,” he said. “But during the summer, it was difficult to even land on a reopening plan because we might get changes — sometimes two or three different changes within a day — and so we were constantly having to go back and revisit our reopening plan.”

“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

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Collierville Schools Arlington Community Schools Jeff Mayo Gary Lilly 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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