Photo: Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray speaks to reporters during a news conference Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, announcing the district’s plan to reopen for in-person learning.
Photo Credit: Shelby County Schools / Twitter
Published February 15, 2021
The superintendent for Shelby County Schools, Joris Ray, is requiring all teachers to return to Memphis classrooms on February 22. The announcement came just two weeks after the initial statement that schools would remain closed indefinitely. Students are currently scheduled to come back a week after teachers.
Kindergarten through fifth-grade students will be starting back on March 1, with sixth through twelfth graders going back the following week. Parents and students still have the option to do at-home learning if they still wish to do so.
Originally, Ray was going to give teachers the option to teach from home, with only 17% choosing to return to the classroom. Teacher assistants and district officials would have filled in for those teachers in person when students began to return.
However, Ray changed his mind about that decision on Friday when he said, “we can’t do this work without teachers.”
The superintendent said, “We looked at every aspect to try to give teachers choice. But we need teachers to do this work effectively. We want our teachers in front of our students.”
Ray went on to say, “We fought the good fight. We stood alone in Memphis and Shelby County against mounting pressure to reopen while COVID-19 cases spiked in our community.”
It was also announced on Friday that licensed educators will be getting a $1,000 bonus while other school-based employees will receive a $500 bonus.
On Friday, Ray attended a meeting with Memphis school teachers where he said, “We know best how to serve our students and children and as such, the time has come for us to return stronger in-person to our buildings and classrooms.”
Declining Covid-19 cases across Shelby County are one reason Ray cited for having teachers return to their classrooms. Another reason is a legislative proposal that would cut the funding of school systems that aren’t open for at least 70 days of in-person instruction.
Ray originally hoped that teachers would be able to get vaccinated before returning to work, but Tennessee pushed them further down the list of priority a month ago. The school district still plans to get teachers vaccinated “in the near future.”
On Friday, federal guidelines were released that schools could reopen without having teachers vaccinated first. The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control is still encouraging wearing masks and social distancing while at schools where the virus is a higher risk.
Danette Stokes, the president of United Education Association of Shelby County, toured schools with Ray in order to make sure students and staff could safely return.
“Pending legislation could cause irreparable harm thus directly impacting teachers and families,” she said about Ray changing his original plan that emphasized virtual learning.
Stokes also said, “Now, it is critical that we stand behind his decision. He has done everything in his power to protect us over the last year. Yet, he is being forced by leaders in Nashville, forcing us to re-enter.”
Governor Bill Lee praised Ray’s decision on Friday after months of pushing him toward reopening schools. A spokesperson for Lee said the state “will continue to provide support,” to Shelby County and other school districts across Tennessee.