The deadline was approaching for Shelby County parents to make a choice: keep students at home for virtual learning or send them back to public school during the coronavirus epidemic.
Now there's just one option. Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray announced Monday that all learning at the start of the fall semester will be virtual.
In a video sent to parents, he said it was a "myth" that schools could safely operate as the county's infection rate passed ten percent.
"Direction signs on floors, spacing desks, more hand sanitizer and masks cannot make a school safe in a community that is experiencing a daily triple-digit increase of virus cases," he said in the video that frames the decision as current scientific reality.
The decision was foreshadowed last week on CNN, where Ray backtracked from the district's previous plan to give students an option. Those who returned to campuses would face a daily gauntlet of safety measures. "We're going to follow the science, follow the data," Ray said. The start date had already been pushed back to Aug. 31.
Protests from teachers concerned about catching the virus from students and bringing it home to their families gained more traction last week. They now have the option of teaching their online classes from home or in their empty classrooms. With in-person learning off the table, the state's largest school district must now create a daily regimen of online instruction for more than 100,000 students, each working from school-issued digital devices.
Some charter schools in the county are planning for limited occupancy. At Freedom Preparatory's five schools, about 25 percent of their roughly 2,400 students can spend their days in school classrooms, supervised by an adult, but still taking classes virtually.
"When you're in class and on campus, you'll be on your zoom call with your headphone, socially distanced, having breaks for bathroom, outdoor recess," says the charter schools' chief of staff Josh Czupryk. "But, lunch will be in your classroom, breakfast will be in your classroom. You'll be with the same set of students during the day."
Shelby County's municipal schools have made scheduling changes as well. Collierville Schools announced a hybrid in-person and at-home school year. Some suburban parents are advocating for a full return to the classroom.
The debate comes as LeBonheur Children's Hospital has seen an increase in children being treated for COVID-19. Nearly 10 percent of new cases are under the age of 18. The Health Department on Monday confirmed the first death of a minor here due to the virus.