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‘Return Stronger’ or wait? How parents weighed the choices

The “Return Stronger” rollout of in-person learning at Shelby County Schools has not convinced thousands of parents to send their children back into the classroom.

Monday (March 1) was the designated first day of Shelby County Schools’ return to physical class learning following a year-long absence due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

SCS officials said nearly 19,000 students at elementary and K-8 schools returned to in-school learning. Their data showed 29,000 of the 88,000 students will be in person. 

A full-scale virtual format was implemented at the onset of the 2020-21 school year. SCS, one of the largest public-school systems in the state, resisted calls for in-person learning weeks after other systems began making the transition.  

A gradual return brought students in grades K-5 back after this week. Students in grades 6-12 will return on Monday (March 8).

Many, however, opted out of the in-person format.

“We have been enjoying virtual learning at home,” said Ernestine Wilkins, a grandmother raising two school-age children. 

“I just love being there with my children. They love it as well. They are more focused, they aren’t being bullied, and I believe they are learning more.”

Wilkins has been raising Sasha Anderson, 12, and Alexander Austin, 9, “since they came home from the hospital.” 

Both attend Cromwell Elementary School. Sasha is in sixth grade and Alexander is a fourth grader. 

“In school, they were distracted by their school mates,” said Wilkins. “Alexander, especially, was losing focus. There are fewer distractions. I just set them up at the kitchen table, or the dining room table, and they get online for school. 

“They miss their friends, but I remind them that playing in the classroom with them friends always got them in trouble.”

Tiphne Hurd was happy to see students return to the classroom.

“I work every day, Monday through Friday,” said Hurd. “My son, Jermier Harris, is a fourth grader at Cromwell. I sent him to the Boys and Girls Club while I worked.

“But, with virtual learning, I was not able to help him, and neither was there anyone at the club who could help.”

Hurd said Jermier has talked about missing his friends.

“Children need to be sociable,” she said. “He talked about his friends every day. He’s an only child, so classmates are important to him. 

“His aunt would do arts and crafts with him, and we all tried to come up with activities to keep him stimulated. But the isolation was getting to him. I could tell. He was so happy returning to school on Monday.”

Hurd said Monday was a big disappointment for Jermier.

“Jermier came home and said there were only five students who returned in his class, and he was the only boy. I told him not to worry, that his classmates would come back. I hope it is soon.”

Jennifer Wilburn has not reached the comfort level to send her son, Myles Wilburn, 9, back into his school classroom. (Courtesy photo)

For Jennifer Wilburn, safety was utmost in her mind. Her two sons, Myles Wilburn, 9, and Nicholas Wilburn, 1, attend a Kinder Care facility when Wilburn has to work.

“My normal work schedule is over the weekend,” said Wilburn. “Any week-day work I do is overtime. I decided to keep Myles in virtual learning at Kinder Care because his surroundings are more controlled. Everyone’s temperature is taken at the door. Parents are not allowed inside. They sign their children in at the door. Right now, those precautions are important to me.”

Wilburn said she has taken every precaution with her children since the pandemic hit Shelby County.

“I have given them two chewable vitamins every day,” said Wilburn. “Two for them, and one for me, because that’s what it says on the bottle.”

Wilburn does expect to send her son back to his classroom at Cromwell, but she needs to be assured that the classroom is safe and healthy.

“The fact that teachers were vaccinated gives me some peace of mind,” Wilburn said. “I will probably just pop up at school one day, and see if students are social distancing and wearing masks. I want to just see what happens with students already returning to school. We just have to wait and see.”

With students, teachers and staff back, is ‘normalcy’ near?

On Monday afternoon, Shelby County Schools Supt. Joris Ray posted this statement on the SCS Facebook page: 

We are so excited to see our children learning in the classroom SAFELY once again! Thank you to all the parents, teachers, staff, and students for the resilience and preparation that made today possible. We can’t wait to see our 6th-12th graders next Monday!”

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