The Fight to Reopen Schools in Memphis

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S1: If you were to roll out a map of Tennessee and watch the county’s light up as the schools opened and closed over the last year, it would look like a series of blinking twinkle lights, schools opening their doors, then slamming them shut as the coronavirus spread. But this map, it would gradually get brighter and brighter, except for one spot, Shelby County, Memphis Public Schools, which were closed for nearly an entire year.

S2: And as time went on, Shelby County schools became the last district in Tennessee to not offer any sort of in-person option.


S3: Laura Faith Schibetta has been following the Shelby County Schools Pertschuk bid. I wanted to talk to her about what’s been happening there because the saga over how to make schools covid safe in this particular city. It differs ever so slightly from the conversation about making schools safe, other places.

S4: There’s just so many different perspectives there. And it’s not as black and white as I think the reopening debate has been framed nationwide.

S1: Around the country, the fight over reopening schools has pitted parents against teachers and unions against school boards. In Tennessee, it’s pitted Republicans who control the state against Democrats who control the cities.

S5: City’s good afternoon.


S1: When Memphis finally did open a few weeks back, the superintendent sounded almost apologetic about it.

S5: A few months ago, I stood before educators of Shelby County schools with the sentiments of the Serenity Prayer in my heart. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.


S1: He offered his teachers a thousand dollar bonus to return to class, but he told them staying home was no longer an option.

S5: We fought the good fight. We stood alone in Memphis and Shelby County against mounting pressure to reopen. While covid-19 cases spiked in our community.

S1: On the first day of school, only 30 percent of the kids reported to class.


S3: Today on the show, why did schools stay closed for so long in Memphis and why weren’t parents straining to open them back up? To answer those questions, you’ve got to tell a longer story about the relationship between a majority black, Democratically controlled city and a largely white Republican controlled state. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: So a few things about Memphis, Tennessee, Memphis is a majority black city white students make up just seven percent of the city’s students.

S6: But also, when it comes to the school system, it’s segregated in the sense that there’s hardly any diversity inside of it. Not necessarily like there’s pockets here and there is just the white population is seven percent of the students in the district.


S4: So there’s just not much mixing to do if that makes sense.

S1: And this lack of mixing, it’s not an accident. About 10 years ago, Memphis City schools merged their district with the county school district, Shelby County. The idea here was to make the schools more equitable, bring suburban money in and desegregate. But a bunch of the county suburbs hated this idea, so they carved out their own school districts and the state legislature passed a law to let them do this. It wasn’t the first time the state horned in on local Memphis school matters and it would not be the last. This is all to say that the Shelby County schools, they’re mostly just Memphis City schools. Most of the suburban schools out there have spun off to do their own thing.


S6: So there was one year 2013 where it was just one huge county system.

S2: And then after that, the year after that is when the six suburban districts opened up.

S1: It sounds like it’s a recipe for a lot of inequity.

S2: It is, yeah. And and some of those things that were agreed on then in the midst of just chaos and trying to figure it out, there are still some things that have effect today, for example, that the retirees from the former county system, all of their benefit costs and everything that comes with that is still within the the now county system, which is the city of Memphis. Basically the new suburb districts didn’t have to take on that that liability or that debt with them. So that’s I mean, that’s one example.


S1: This inequity is what Laura Faith Kabera refers to as the Song of Memphis schools. And the different verses are about all the times the state has stepped in and overridden its local decisions. Sometimes that’s in the form of changing a 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 a pandemic. OK, so you’ve painted this picture of Memphis, especially the school system, as having these deep historic divides and constantly trying to figure out how to deal with them. And then into that situation comes covid, which everyone has sort of talked about it as shining a light on these kinds of inequities. And given all that, I find it interesting that the Shelby County schools, Memphis was the last district to open up in the state. I wonder where you would start the story of how Memphis got to this place as being the lone holdout?


S2: I think 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. And, you know, there was some viral videos that went out of a dad who had Lysol down his sign.

S6: There was a woman who showed up, you know, in a garbage bag, basically just she didn’t know what else to how to protect herself, like going into this environment. Oh, my gosh. And Shelby County Schools was the first in the state to shut down school buildings. And I think it was maybe a week later the governor urged he didn’t require, but he did urge districts to to close.


S1: My impression, looking at your reporting is that the superintendent of schools, George Ray, has really fought to keep kids learning virtually like as long as he can. Is that your sense as well?

S6: Yes. You know, there was plans for returning, but but in-person instruction just kept getting pushed back.

S1: The first delay came in August, right after covid cases surged. Superintendent Joris Ray announced the news on the District Facebook page.

S7: As hard as it was to close schools, sending students back to them is even more complicated. That is why all the staffers schools will open virtually in Shelby County. The second delay for returning in January came post Thanksgiving as cases were also surging that we would need to delay a gradual reopening of schools and return no earlier than the second semester, February 8th.


S6: He talked a lot about how students are living in multigenerational homes, and the possibility of transmitting to much older and more vulnerable 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 kind of threshold of like, you know, such and such positivity rate then will open schools, which I think a lot of people were also worried about, because it’s like, you know, we get what you’re saying and it’s, you know, it’s hard decisions. But we also need some transparency to understand how you’re making these decisions.


S1: So you’re saying he didn’t even offer like, here’s what I would open schools. He was just saying, no, not now. Right.


S7: During in times like this, our faith can be tested and it could be hard to imagine brighter days.

S1: But I know he almost has a preacher’s cadence. When I listen to him talk, he 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 kind of in the middle.

S6: Well, a lot of it is because I think he grew up here, had his entire career here in the schools, and there’s a connection there for sure.

S2: The superintendent really kind of took on this persona of protector of students, of staff.

S1: You know, he talked about in very personal ways, you know, a lot of places around the country. I feel like the fight over school reopening has become a union fight. And 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’s kind of who was sort of standing there preventing the reopening for a long time.

S4: Yeah, there’s not a avenue for unions here to be at the table the way that other unions across the country are in kind of hashing out those details. About a decade ago, the state legislature stripped unions of their bargaining rights and 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. So, I mean, we’ve struggled with how to even describe teacher unions here because the kind of hallmarks of union power are no longer part of Tennessee education politics.


S1: Hmm. Where was the pressure coming from to open the schools? Was it coming from parents? Was it coming from somewhere else?

S4: Most of it was coming from the state. Same song, different verse of the tensions between the state and local governments. And that’s that’s a pattern that people have noted for four years.

S8: Way before covid showed up after the break, how the state worked its will again in Memphis.

S1: So Jan seemed to be a turning point for Shelby County schools, can you just describe what happened to make the superintendent feel a lot more pressure to get the schools open?

S6: I think the biggest part was the funding bill that was proposed to cut state funding if school districts and meet a certain threshold of offering in-person learning, because that kind of was a jolt, bring students back to class in person or lose your state funding.

S1: Now, this could happen in Tennessee if a new bill filed becomes law. Let’s go to FOX 13. Around the same time this bill was introduced, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, called out Memphis schools for remaining closed.

S9: You can’t say follow the science and keep schools closed. You can’t say I believe in public education and keep schools closed. And you can’t say you’re putting this needs of students first. And keep schools closed.

S4: 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, you know, widespread outbreaks and that sort of thing, though there were plenty of schools that closed temporarily because there are so many staff or students who were in quarantine because they had come in contact with someone. So all of that was going on at the time. And I think that was a big turning point.


S1: Yeah, I mean, Joyce released this video where he addressed state lawmakers and he was really playing.

S7: He says, like, please don’t hurt my children know that my nearly one hundred ten thousand children have seen far too many loved ones die from covid-19. More coronavirus deaths have been recorded in Shelby County, the any other county in Tennessee, my children have.

S1: And he says, you know, 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.

S4: Yeah, absolutely. There was conversations that he had with the governor talk 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 our health department’s own issues that they were having. There was doses that had expired and they had to throw them away. It was just it was a lot. And so all of these things were affecting what the school system did and how it thought about when is the right time to reopen.

S1: At the same time that the state government was pressuring schools in Memphis to open, were they offering resources for covid testing or mosques or PPE or anything that the schools might need to actually do the reopening?

S4: Yeah, so there was state money that was provided for PPA. 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, you know, he talked about how well 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.


S1: Superintendent Joris Ray had promised his teachers they would have a choice about going back into 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. Joris said teachers would get a one time 1000 dollar bonus.

S4: It was his attempt to sweeten a raw deal, and 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, well, I mean, things, I guess, you know, is kind of that kind of attitude about it. But, yeah, I mean, I think that’s that’s why he did it, to kind of soften the blow of this turnaround of this commitment that he made to teachers.

S1: When I listen to Laura tell this story, what stands out to me is that I’ve gotten pretty used to a 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 and the grievances of people here are exactly the same. Teachers are worried they’re not getting prioritised 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. Laura 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.


S4: She quit what was really powerful for me to hear from what she was saying, she when she talked to her students about it. This is obviously still all virtual and they’re on a computer. So she left five 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. So it was just really just a hard decision from what she told me, to do that, to not be in a profession that she really loved.

S1: Do you think the school reopening story in Shelby County is over, but do you think there’s a possibility the schools might shut down again?

S4: I’m not sure. I mean, I think part of it depends on how these variants play out here. There’s so many factors. I mean, I think it’s definitely possible, but there’s so many factors that go into it. And I think if 20, 20 year taught me anything is not to it’s hard to predict anything.

S10: Laura Faith Kabera, thank you so much for joining me. Absolutely. Thank you, Laura. Faith Kabera is a reporter for Chaubey, Tennessee. And that is the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Mary Wilson. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Stay tuned to this feed tomorrow. Lizzie O’Leary will be here with what next TBD. All right. I’ll talk to you Monday.