Steve Rayford arrived early to pick up his grandchildren, Deryen and McKenzie, from Germanshire Elementary School on Monday afternoon. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

by Curtis Weathers — 

Curtis Weathers, the education columnist for The New Tri-State Defender.

School buildings are open, teachers are back in their classrooms and students are returning to some form of in-person learning with their teachers. Normalcy is just around the corner – or is it?

The truth is, we still have a long way to go.

Even though teachers and some students started returning to their schools this week, normalcy is still far, far away. This week, students in grades K-6 are back in their classrooms. Students in grades 8-12 will return Monday (March 8). 

About 38 percent of elementary school students in Shelby County Schools are expected to be back in classrooms this week. Next week, about 29 percent of middle schoolers and 24 percent of high schoolers are expected to return.

Some teachers are still reluctant to return to their schools because the spread of the virus, although in significant decline, is still a genuine concern.  

The COVID-19 case count in Shelby County continues a weekly decline. The latest weekly positivity rate fell for the fifth week in a row to 7.4 percent. That’s down from the 9.4 percent rate recorded the previous week and down from a record-high 17.5 percent in late December.

SCS Supt. Joris Ray seems to have his school buildings as well prepared as possible to make reopening schools as safe and productive as possible. The one worrisome element of the district’s reopening plan is that students, although they will be in the classroom with their teachers, will still be receiving instruction virtually on their laptops and tablets.

This may not be as troubling as it sounds. Students will still have direct access to their teachers in the classroom and will be able to interact, even though somewhat awkwardly. 

Despite the planning and preparation, some parents still do not believe it is worth the time to send their children back to school if they are still going to be taught virtually through a computer. Others are skeptical, based on past experiences, that district personnel will keep buildings clean and sanitized. 

According to the district’s reopening plan:

* Schools will revert to their normal start and end times for the school day.

* Students and staff will be required to wear masks and undergo temperature checks every day.

* Students who return to buildings will learn through live videoconferencing.

* Staff and parents should expect to know if a person who tests positive for COVID-19 was in close contact with them or their child within 12 hours of when the school was notified.

* A typical classroom will hold no more than 12 students to allow for social distancing.

* Soap and paper towel dispensers will be restocked every day instead of waiting to refill when they run out.

* Some ventilation improvements have been made, with more on the way.

Notably, the district has not specified a threshold number of COVID-19 cases for temporarily closing a school.

One of the most essential elements of SCS’s preparation and planning will be completed, hopefully, by the end of this week. All district teachers and staff are expected to have received an initial dose of the vaccine.

SCS is the second-largest employer in Shelby County, with over 14,000 employees, including 6,500 teachers. The district plans to vaccinate 2,000 employees per day.  

Still, with all of the steps being taken to ensure teachers, staff and students’ safety, some teachers remain skeptical about returning to their classrooms. These teachers understandably feel betrayed, concluding that Supt. Ray and the district broke a promise that teachers would be able to choose whether to return to classrooms or remain virtual.  

Some of these individuals, regrettably, have decided to resign. I do hope they reconsider; they will surely be missed.  

Given the circumstances, however, Dr. Ray and his team have managed the pandemic response quite well, putting our school system in the best possible position to reopen safely. They are deliberately and methodically executing a well-thought-out plan.

Surely there will be bumps in the road, but I advocate giving them our full cooperation and community support as we continue praying that everyone stays safe and out of harm’s way.

No, we’re not out of the woods, yet. Yes, there really is light at the end of the tunnel. Welcome back students, teachers and staff.

We missed you!

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