SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — One week after a controversial decision to delay in-person learning, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray answered some of FOX13′s questions about that decision.
This happened after he shared his in-person learning plan with the school board, a plan with no start date.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Ray has been preaching about following the science.
FOX13 asked him what type of data he needs to see to reopen schools, but he didn’t give an exact answer.
“Our decision to reopen schools and return to in-person learning has never been a unilateral decision,” said Ray. “We continue to work instead with our school board and prioritize the health and safety of educators and families.”
This is the expected response from Superintendent Ray when he discusses returning to in-person learning.
Right now, Shelby County Schools is the only district in the state operating fully virtual. During a school board meeting, he presented his plan to transition students back to the classroom, including sanitation procedures, handling future COVID-19 cases, and continuing social distancing.
FOX13 watched slide after slide after slide, but a start date was missing.
“We are going to do everything we can possibly do to return students back to school stronger. It’s not a unilateral decision I’ll make by myself,” said Ray.
The decision to delay is controversial because some parents want their kids back in schools now, while others worry it still isn’t safe.
FOX13 also asked Ray about the CDC study and the Shelby County health director’s comments, both indicating that schools don’t cause an increase in community transmission.
“Every school district is very unique, and you have to do what’s best for your school district,” said Ray.
FOX13 also asked if he was looking for something specific in the data that would make it an easier call to reopen schools.
“We aren’t picking and choosing what we’re looking at. We’re working with our health department,” said Ray.
Ray said the downward trend in COVID-19 data gives him hope, but he believes it’s better to be safe than sorry when reopening schools.
“Virtual learning isn’t ideal, but it’s not broken, and I’m honored to have teachers working their heart out, and students are being resilient,” said Ray.
School Board Member Billy Orgel said he’s disappointed that in-person learning remains on hold. In fact, he said it should start on February 15th.
He doesn’t understand why we aren’t setting a start date when we already have an in-person learning plan in place.
“You can’t always count the yays and nays all the time, he’s chosen to be our Superintendent and he needs to make the decisions,” said Orgel.
Orgel said it’s time to give parents an in-person learning option.
He said several parents worry their children are falling behind due to virtual learning.
“We have a plan in place to go back and it’s time to let the children and their parents who want their kids to go back to school, to go back in school,” said Orgel.
Orgel is also concerned about losing state funding.
In fact, earlier this week Tennessee’s Senior Senator Marsha Blackburn said schools that won’t bring students back should not get federal funding.
She questions why other municipal districts are open while SCS is closed.
Orgel said he agrees with her.
“We’ve had some good give and take, Dr. Ray talked to the Governor, I think its time to give our parents a choice and still respect people who don’t feel comfortable being back in school,” said Orgel.
During a briefing for School Board members, Ray defended his decision saying each school district is different
“We want to continue to honor our choices but there is so much mitigating we need to do in our community,” said Ray.
“We need to stop the spread of the virus, folks need to continue wearing a mask.”
Ray said the district is not setting a start date because he wants to be flexible.
He added that he will continue to follow the data while having conversations with his school board and the health department.
Still, the pressure is on to get students back inside the classroom.
“Everybody has an opinion but at the end of the day the buck stops with me as it relates to safety,” said Ray.
FOX13 asked Ray about his thoughts on the CDC and health department’s comments about schools not increasing transmission.
He didn’t give a direct answer but said a lot of families are still scared and don’t want to go back to the classrooms.
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