A YEAR LATER: The effects COVID-19 left on schools across the Mid-South

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This past year has been anything but normal, especially for our students and teachers.

Perhaps the biggest decision school leaders had to make when to return to in-person learning.

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A new normal of face masks, social distancing and learning through a computer screen.

It was not an easy year for anyone in education.

It didn’t matter if you were in elementary, middle, high school or college, everything changed.

“Our teachers do heart work every day,” said Shelby County Superintendent Joris Ray, Ph.D.

“It’s been a very mixed year,” said Dr. Scott Strome, Executive Dean, UTHSC College of Medicine

“I don’t think anyone ever imagined that it would be the long haul that it was,” said Jeff Mayo, Arlington School Superintendent.

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A pandemic that has spanned 365 days in Shelby County, forever changing how everyone lives and learns.

Mayo detailing the quick demise of in-person learning as COVID-19 ravaged through the Mid-South.

“When we went home for spring break, we didn’t return,” Mayo said.

From there, a constant stream of online meetings to see if the rest of the 2019-2020 school year could be salvaged.

“We started working with the Tennessee Department of Education and determining what our options were for continued student learning,” he said.

Each school district faced similar issues, but the approach was different.

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For Shelby County Schools, the past year was full of virtual learning.

“We’ve tried supporting our teachers throughout the pandemic,” Ray said.

Many times, the district delayed the return to in-person learning.

Students in SCS schools just started the return process.

At a recent school supply drive, Ray said the return process was smoother than others.

“99.7% of our teachers returned and they returned stronger,” he said. “We didn’t have some of the issues they had across the nation to get teachers back in the classroom.”

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It didn’t matter what level of education you were at, COVID-19 changed learning for everyone.

As other medical schools across the country graduated students early, Dr. Strome took a different approach.

“I didn’t feel right taking our freshly minted students and putting them out into an ICU experience where they’d just graduated medical school and still trying to get their feet on the ground,” he said.

Dr. Strome wanted their students prepared.

“I was worried that we were going to put out our students into a very high stressed potentially under-supervised environment early,” he said. “I just couldn’t justify that.”

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As for the future, Mayo hopes Arlington Schools can return to full-fledged in-person learning in the fall.

“My hope is that next school year that, that will be our model,” Mayo said “I think it’s a little early right now to make that determination.”

Another factor school leaders will be looking at, what kind of learning loss students experienced while learning virtually.

Mayo said they may not truly know what the damage is until they can get some solid assessment data.