Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts for the full episode.
I’ve gotten used to a pretty binary narrative when it comes to the school reopening story: The science says schools should be open; unions or teachers are often getting in the way of that. But that’s not quite the story in Memphis, Tennessee, in large part because it’s a majority-Black, Democratic-controlled city in a Republican-controlled state. There’s hardly any diversity within the Memphis school system: White students make up just 7 percent of students.
This lack of mixing is not an accident. About 10 years ago, Memphis city schools merged their district with the county school district, Shelby County. The idea was to make the schools more equitable, bring suburban money into the city and desegregate. But a bunch of county suburbs did not like this idea, so they carved out their own school districts, and the state legislature passed a law to let them do it. The result is that Shelby County Schools is mostly just Memphis city schools; most of the suburban schools have spun off to do their own thing.
This setup was a recipe for inequity long before COVID hit, with the state often stepping in to override local decisions. Sometimes that’s in the form of changing the law so the wealthy suburbs can secede from their school districts. Sometimes that’s in the form of shutting down city schools that aren’t performing so well and replacing them with charter schools. And this past year, it came in the form of demanding that city schools reopen during the pandemic. Earlier this month, Memphis public schools became the last district in Tennessee to reopen for in-person learning, after being closed for nearly an entire year. On the first day of school, only 30 percent of the kids reported to class. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede about what happened in Memphis and why it differs from the conversation about making schools safe elsewhere. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: You’ve painted this picture of Memphis, especially the school system, as having these deep, historic divides, and then into that situation comes COVID, which has shined a light on these kinds of inequities. Where would you start the story of how Memphis got to be the lone holdout?
Laura Faith Kebede: I would start it around a year ago. There was a school here where an employee was quarantined—this is when we barely knew what that meant. There was some viral videos that went out of a dad who had Lysoled down his son. There was a woman who showed up in a garbage bag basically—she didn’t know how to protect herself going into this environment. And Shelby County Schools was the first in the state to shut down school buildings. Maybe a week later the governor urged, he didn’t require, but he did urge districts to close.
It seems the superintendent of schools, Joris Ray, has really fought to keep kids learning virtually as long as he can. In-person instruction kept getting pushed back. The first delay came in August, right after COVID cases surged in the area, and then the second delay in January, when cases were surging after Thanksgiving.
He talked a lot about how students are living in multigenerational homes, and the possibility of transmitting to much older and more vulnerable residents was a risk that he thought a lot of other communities, especially in the suburbs, didn’t have to grapple with as much. There was never a threshold of, like, at such and such positivity rate, then we’ll open schools—which I think a lot of people were also worried about, because it’s like, we get what you’re saying and it’s hard decisions, but we also need some transparency to understand how you’re making these decisions.
He almost has a preacher’s cadence when I listen to him talk. He seems to be straddling this line of trying to represent his teachers and principals, but also respond to the political moment. He really struck me as a man in the middle.
A lot of it is, I think, because he grew up here, had an entire career here in Memphis schools, and there’s a connection there for sure. The superintendent really took on this persona of protector, of students, of staff. And he talked about in very personal ways.
In a lot of places around the country, the fight over school reopening has become a union fight. A lot of people blame the unions for kids not going back to school if they’re upset and they want their kids back in the classroom. Part of what I think makes Memphis interesting is that that’s not the story there. It’s really just the superintendent who was preventing the reopening for a long time.
Yeah, there’s not an avenue for unions here to be at the table the way that other unions across the country are, in hashing out those details. About a decade ago, the state legislature stripped unions of their bargaining rights. They still can negotiate contracts, but it doesn’t have to go back to the union membership for a vote. The school board has the final say. I mean, we’ve struggled with how to even describe teacher unions here, because the hallmarks of union power are no longer part of Tennessee education politics.
Where was the pressure coming from to open the schools?
Most of it was coming from the state—same song, different verse, of the tensions between the state and local governments. And that’s a pattern that people have noted for years, way before COVID showed up.
January seemed to be a turning point for Shelby County Schools. What happened to make the superintendent feel a lot more pressure to get the schools open?
I think the biggest part was the funding bill that was proposed to cut state funding if school districts didn’t meet a certain threshold of offering in-person learning. That kind of was a jolt.
And around the same time this bill was introduced, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, called out Memphis schools for remaining closed.
The state was saying, you know, virtual learning isn’t meeting all of kids’ needs, and there are other districts that have been open and there haven’t been widespread outbreaks—though there were plenty of schools that closed temporarily because there were so many staff or students who were in quarantine because they had come in contact with someone.
Joris Ray released this video where he addressed state lawmakers and said, “Please don’t hurt my children.” Basically, when you advocate for in-person learning against the decisions of a duly elected school board, you run the risk of hurting my children—which is another reference to the fact that you’re stepping in where my local folks have already made a decision.
Yeah, absolutely. There was conversations that he had with the governor about, well, if we’re going to open, we need to make sure that teachers get vaccinated ASAP. And that was not happening in Shelby County either. And then on top of that, there was our health department’s own issues—there was doses that had expired, and they had to throw them away. So all of these things were affecting what the school system did and how it thought about when is the right time to reopen.
At the same time that the state government was pressuring schools in Memphis to open, were they offering resources for COVID testing or masks or PPE or anything that the schools might need to actually do the reopening?
Yeah, so there was state money that was provided for PPE, even in the summer. They put out thousands of pages of guidance about how to reopen schools and recommendations on how to do that safely. But in the beginning of January, I was talking to the superintendent and he talked about how we’ve never even had a mask mandate here in Tennessee, so the infection rates in the community affect my decision-making.
All year long, Ray had promised teachers they would have a choice about going back into the school buildings. But in February, under unmistakable pressure from the state, Ray announced teachers would be required to go back to offer in-person instruction. He said teachers would get a one-time $1,000 bonus. It was his attempt to sweeten a raw deal.
I don’t think it did that for everyone, because the stipulations of it is that you need to stay on until June. The bonus won’t actually kick in until a June paycheck. And there are people that were kind of saying, I mean … thanks? I guess? You know, it was that kind of attitude about it. But yeah, I think that’s why he did it, to kind of soften the blow of this turnaround of this commitment that he made to teachers.
Even though the story is a little different in Memphis, the grievances of people here are exactly the same as around the country. Teachers worry they aren’t getting prioritized for vaccines, that their ventilation systems aren’t up to par. They worry about being asked to report to work when the communities around them are discouraging mask-wearing. And that lack of trust and care has consequences. Students stay home. Teachers do, too. You talked to one middle school teacher, a new mom who wanted to avoid the vaccine because she worried about safety for her newborn. Instead of going back to work, she quit.
What was really powerful was when she talked to her students about it—this is obviously still all virtual and they’re on a computer—she left 5 to 10 minutes at the end of class to tell them that she was leaving and why. And one of her students put in the chat box that she was a good mother for making that sacrifice and that decision. It was really a hard decision to do that, to not be in a profession that she really loved.
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.