With a donation from Valero, Knowledge Quest in April moved to meet the computer needs of about 120 of the 200 families it seeks to service. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

Starting in August, Shelby County Schools plans to offer both online and in-person instruction for students — and parents can choose which option they want.

The Memphis district plans for teachers to simultaneously teach students in the building and stream the lesson online through a classroom laptop while all students interact online whether they are in the classroom or at home.

The district plans to ask parents from July 6 to 17 to choose an option for the first semester so the district can provide laptops or tablets next month, Superintendent Joris Ray told school board members during a meeting Tuesday evening. Parents may switch choices for the second semester.

“The district recognizes that while some families desire a return to a traditional school, others have embraced alternative approaches such as virtual learning and have a desire to continue on this path until the pandemic subsides,” Ray told board members.

Ray said the plan was largely based on the district’s parent survey issued earlier this month, the district’s re-entry task force, and listening sessions the district held last week. If results from the district’s parent survey bear out, far fewer students will be learning in buildings than last year and most will be learning online.

The district reached about 15,000 parents, representing from 25% to 30% of students, said John Barker, a deputy superintendent. Despite the small turnout, Barker said participants provided a “substantially clear picture” of district parent demographics. District officials did not provide a breakdown of participants by race, income level, ZIP code, or school. About 69% of survey participants said they support online learning, while 27% support in-person learning at school, according to the district’s presentation.

The estimates mean school officials may have more room in their buildings and buses to implement social distancing in accordance with federal health guidelines. The estimates also put more pressure on the district to provide online learning that keeps pace with the benefits of in-person instruction — a difficult task even before the coronavirus pandemic forced districts to turn to online instruction.

Still, about 71% of Memphis families surveyed said they were “very or somewhat confident” their children can successfully learn online, the district said.

School board members asked what a school day would look like for each option and questioned whether streaming a lesson would be effective.

“I remember clearly when I was dissecting the frog in my biology class,” said board member Shante Avant, adding she doesn’t want online students to have “less of an experience.” “I don’t see how a computer camera will help you facilitate that [hands-on learning].”

Board members also asked if the district had developed protocol on how school leaders should respond if a staff member or student tests positive for COVID-19. Ray said his team is still working on that, but they plan to have a process in place before school starts in August.

“Although we may rely on the health department, as a school district, we need to have a plan to do what we feel if there is an outbreak or a high number of students who fall ill,” board member Stephanie Love said.

Ray said the district has gone beyond health department guidelines, including when closing campuses in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

District officials also released more details on what in-person and online learning will look like in August. Classroom instruction will have more online components to ease the transition to at-home learning, if it’s necessary, and to better sync with their peers learning online.

If parents choose in-person learning, the district will require students, staff, and visitors to wear face coverings and the district will stock up on backup masks. The district also will conduct daily temperature checks, place desks 6 feet apart, and will disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least four times per day.

About 88% of families who participated in the district’s survey said enhanced cleaning is an important factor in their decision to return to school.

If parents of students with disabilities choose online learning, students would still have access to federally required services, officials said. But extracurricular activities would be limited.

“Digital instruction will be done through these digital platforms, but also the same digital instruction will be able to be streamed and recorded to ensure that learning takes place whether at school or away from school,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer.

The district plans to start distributing laptops and tablets for students whose parents choose the all-online option starting July 15 and plans to complete distribution to all students by early September, two months earlier than originally planned.

Ray said the 2020-21 school year calendar will remain the same, after weeks of debate among district leaders, teachers, and parents, but the start and end dates may change because of Gov. Bill Lee’s recent state of emergency extension. The district plans to offer optional sessions over fall and spring breaks and some weekends to catch up on any learning.

Ray said more details will be announced this week.