Uptown & The Pinch

As students prepare to return to classrooms, North Memphis teachers and families reflect

[Author Jolie Shaw is a graduate of the High Ground News Community Correspondents program, which trains everyday Memphians from underserved communities in the basics of community-based reporting. This is her first High Ground News story.]

Since Shelby County Schools ended in-person learning in March 2020, questions have circulated for the best plan of action in the midst of a viral pandemic.

Districts around the United States approached the return to school differently though, everyone seems to agree that students’ education is important. The major questions and conflicts have surrounded the when and how.

In July 2020, officials first asked parents to choose for themselves whether they wanted their children to return to school houses as normal or remain virtual in the 2020-21 school year. Nearly 70% of parents opted for online learning.

“It’s six in one hand, half a dozen in the other," said Dianne Clark—school bus driver, crisis management worker, and grandmother—about the safety of school verses home. "You want everybody to be safe. So, you want the proper precautions taken for the drivers, the teachers, and the professionals, as well as the children."

“Having a choice is good and works for people because your belief system has a lot to do with how well you’re going to adjust,” she continued. “Having a choice provides peace.”

“You already got to worry about the dangers of your kids getting bullied and now you got coronavirus on top of that,” said parent and North Memphis resident, Ceiare Williams. “Some kids have social anxiety, now they have to figure out how to readapt." She added that some students are happier out of school and away from their peers.

SCS has moved the start date for a return to in-person learning several times. Governor Bill Lee is pressuring the district to return by February 15th, but Shelby County School students wil begin returning to in-person learning on March 1. 

Bryanna Mason is a kindergarten teacher and mother in Memphis.

“It’s really hard to teach a kid how to read over the computer. It’s hard teaching a kid how to count over the computer. They need to feel; they need to touch," she said. "With me teaching them a structure online, it’s hard for them to feel my vibe. I miss my kids. I miss being able to interact with them.”

Williams said a lot of people are just as anxious to be stuck at homes as they are returning to school. 

"It’s sort of like there is no answer because we’re venturing into the unknown.” said Williams. “Everybody is in automatic survival mode right now, whether you’re essential or non-essential.”

“I want to be safe,” said Mason. “I want us to be safe, but I also want my kids to get their education. I want them to feel their education and I want them to grow. And I am not saying that it won’t happen. I’m not saying that it can’t happen. It’s just going to be a little difficult.”

During the last year of virtual learning, SCS has provided meals, tablets, laptops, and wifi connection to households who need it in an effort to ease parent concerns.

The City of Memphis also partnered with the YMCA to develop a virtual learning support centers for SCS students whose parents are essential workers. 

One of the centers operates out of the Bickford Community Center on the western end of North Memphis. It works with grades K-5 students in small groups with group leaders to help students focus on the teacher and the screen.

When asked how she thinks the kids are handling virtual learning, group leader Ashley Johnson said the teachers are doing most of the work.

“The kids that are in the higher grades, 4th and 5th, they do pretty well. The kids that are in K-3rd grades, it’s a little bit harder with them because it’s hard for them to sit down and stay on the tablets a long time, looking at the screen and interacting with the teachers," she said. 

Johnson says that she admires how the teachers use YouTube videos with dancing and singing to keep the students engaged. The students are also allowed recess and breaks throughout the school day, which she says the students do well at managing themselves.

“I don’t know if, when they made the decision to do virtual learning, they really thought about the kids that require a little more hands-on learning," she said. "Because, some of the kids that we have, you can tell that when they were in school, their teachers worked one-on-one with them versus [them] being able to just sit down and interact with the rest of the class.”

“You can work on something one day with them, then when you come back on the next day, you can tell that it didn’t stick with them from when the teacher taught it the previous day,” she continued.

As for the older students, Johnson says they seem to do better and some are actually enjoying the online learning experience. Though, they miss being able to interact with other kids. The advanced understanding of technology of today’s youth, she said, is an advantage.

“A lot of the kids have found a lot of school activities to do on the computer, now; besides the gaming, besides the Fortnight and all of that. They have a lot of games that they can play that teaches them and the teachers have it where they can get on and they can play the games along with the kids. I feel like that helps them a lot," she said. 

While no one is certain of the exact procedure best for students’ education and safety, one thing is certain: the help of parents, educators, family and neighbors is required to ensure efficient results.
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Jolie Shaw is a North Memphis resident and graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program.