The use of technology has taken on a deeper dimension with students restricted to distant learning during the pandemic. (Photo: Twitter)

by Curtis Weathers —

Curtis Weathers

The tug of war between Governor Bill Lee and the two largest school systems in the state, Memphis Shelby County Schools and Nashville Metro Public Schools, has been at least halfway resolved.  Metro Nashville Superintendent Dr. Adrian Battle began transitioning her school system back to in-person learning last week. Still, SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray will continue virtual learning in his district “indefinitely.”  

With pressure mounting from an increasing number of factions, including the governor, state legislators, district school board members, and even the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Ray has remained steadfast in his decision to keep students, teachers, and staff at home rather than risk their health and safety by returning to the classroom too soon.

Governor Lee wants schools back open next week.  At this point, however, it does not look like he will get his wish.  But Lee and Superintendent Ray have at least opened the lines of communication and are discussing ways they might collaborate in efforts to reopen district schools sooner rather than later. 

Beverly Robinson, CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, sent Ray and district school board members a letter expressing their concerns regarding the district’s decision to remain all virtual.  In the letter, she outlined a series of truly relevant questions and issues that need to be addressed.  

She also alluded to the work of the district’s Re-Entry Task Force, which was news to me.  This group is comprised of key stakeholders representing education, the faith community, healthcare, and business sectors of our community.  They apparently have not met in quite a while.  If they had, I suppose the letter from Mrs. Robinson and the Chamber would not have been necessary.  

But I’ve been asking similar questions as well, in particular about the metrics that are being used to support district decisions to remain virtual.  Ray said the virus’ spread in Memphis is still too high to reopen classrooms, though he has not specified a threshold that would allow students to begin a safe return to schools.  He also said, “multiple factors” influenced his most recent decision to delay reopening, including cases, vaccinations, and potential legislation.”

Let me be clear, in the interest of full disclosure, I fully support Superintendent Ray in his decision to keep schools closed.  But like many, I have one question inquiring minds are dying to know the answer to: 

What conditions need to be met, or what metrics need to be achieved to trigger a return to in-person learning for those who have chosen to do so?

Back in October, the superintendent introduced a set of metrics that would be used in determining when “all” SCS students could return to the classroom.  Those metrics included the following: 

Number of new confirmed coronavirus cases: Fewer than 100 per day for 14 consecutive days:  Currently, Shelby County is averaging overall about 319 cases per day.

Case positivity rate: Less than 5% for 14 consecutive days.  The current positivity rate is 20.4%

ICU bed occupancy: Less than 80% for 14 consecutive days: The current ICU bed occupancy is at 94%

So, again, according to the superintendent, when these conditions are achieved, “all” SCS students will be able to return to in-person learning.  

It would be helpful– at this crucial moment– to see a similar set of metrics or conditions that are informing the district’s decision-making process here in the short-term.  

It is not a complicated request.

Shelby County is still at a very high-risk level, according to the New York Times Covid-19 Tracker.  

The risk of getting Covid-19 is based on cases per capita and test positivity, which are very high in Shelby County.   But while cases are high, they have been on a gradual decline over the past few weeks. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has also fallen in Shelby County, but I.C.U. occupancy is still a major concern.  Deaths have remained about the same. 

Per the Shelby County Health Department, over the last week, Shelby County has averaged about 306 new confirmed cases per day (32.7 for every 100,000 residents). If this trend continued for the next three months, this would translate to approximately 27,000 cases and an estimated 140,000 infections (15% of the population).

Based on those metrics, I think the Superintendent has good reason to delay the start of in-person learning in our district.  But I also think the community needs to know what the public health goals that are guiding the district’s decision-making.  

One thing is clear, the health concerns in Memphis and Shelby County are real. There are also concerns about a new and even more dangerous variant of the virus (UK COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7) stalking Memphis and other communities throughout Tennessee. People are still getting sick, and many continue to die, and the feeling is that if you must err, maybe you err on the side of learning loss, inconveniences, and discomfort to prevent the loss of more lives. 

Stay safe, Memphis.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we still have a long way to go.  

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)