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Friday, February 12, 2021
Good afternoon, SCS colleagues.

Today, I write to you with the sentiments of the serenity prayer in my heart. You may already know how it goes: 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.

We’ve fought the good fight. We’ve stood alone in Memphis and Shelby County against mounting pressure to reopen while COVID-19 cases spiked in our community.

From the onset of this pandemic, we’ve diligently planned for a stronger return to our buildings, but we have had no control of this virus or the community conditions that would allow us to go back.

What we HAVE had control of on this unprecedented journey since March 2020 is the spirit of cooperation and the incredible ingenuity you’ve shown in doing what some people said was impossible:

  • We moved to a historic 1:1 device implementation in a matter of eight weeks, and you made virtual victories happen for our students.
  • We prioritized student and family meals and served more than 1 million meals to students since last March.
  • We’ve provided uninterrupted pay for teachers, even amid layoffs around the country.
  • And we were one of a few employers in the state to honor our promise to give a much deserved pay raise to all employees.

None of this work would have been possible without your unwavering support. Although we didn’t know the path of the virus, we have remained committed to FLEXIBILITY. It’s always been part of our S.A.F.E plan: Strategic Action for Flexible Education. 

The very essence of flexibility is the ABILITY and WILLINGNESS to adjust...and my dear colleagues and family, this is where we find ourselves today. 

As you have likely seen in news reports from the legislature in Nashville, we have received an ultimatum from lawmakers that illustrates the potential of irreparable harm to our District if we do not begin implementing our reopening plans. There is proposed legislation in the General Assembly that could impact our funding and penalize the District, not to mention the bill already passed in Special Session that will penalize districts for low participation on in-person TCAP assessments.

I repeat, we CANNOT risk irreparable harm to our great District and governing structure. We cannot risk a potential surrender of local control. We know best how to serve our students and children, and, as such, the time has come for us to return stronger in-person to our buildings and classrooms.

We’ve pleaded with health officials and state leaders for months to prioritize vaccinations for teachers and SCS employees. We’re working hand in hand with the Shelby County Health Department to get our teachers and employees to the front of the line. The coming availability of vaccines and the reports that new COVID-19 cases are beginning to trend downward in our community is our greatest signal of hope.

We have continued to follow the science since the onset of the pandemic. And now is no different. We’ve learned that from the first of January to the first of February, the seven-day average number of newly diagnosed cases decreased by more than 50%. The number of active coronavirus cases in Shelby County is less than 3,000 for the first time since last fall. And the percentage of positive tests continues a steady decline since the holidays. 
Considering this hope, today I am asking that ALL SCS employees return in-person to buildings and classrooms on Monday, February 22. The District will implement at least two Asynchronous Learning Days during the week of February 22 to allow teachers an opportunity to be back in their classrooms and get prepared for a return to in-person learning. 
Our Human Resources team will be scheduling COVID-19 101 sessions prior to employees returning to address any questions and concerns you may have.

In-person learning for all students/families who selected this option will begin Monday, March 1. The virtual instruction option for students/families who selected to remain virtual will be honored for the remainder of the school year.

Recognizing the resilience and commitment of our incredible teachers and school staff, I am proud to announce today a one-time Return Stronger Bonus: $1,000 for certified school-based employees and $500 for classified school-based employees (more details about eligibility will be shared next week).

Let me be clear, although there is pressure to reopen school buildings, we will not compromise our commitment to safety or our core mission to provide a high quality education for the children of Shelby County. Our buildings are ready. We’ve used millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds to purchase protective equipment, cleaning supplies, install safety signage and improve building ventilation systems to protect our precious children and our incredible staff.

We are planning to dedicate ESSER II (COVID-19 relief) dollars for COVID-19 testing with community partners and exploring options to maintain safety and minimize burden for school teams. Any option for nasal swab testing will be voluntary and available for all schools.

Here’s what we know: As the largest school District in the state, with more than 95,000 students and more than 14,000 employees, we have a long way to go yet in our fight to minimize the spread of the virus. But please know we will continue to support schools to keep staff and students safe.

In the end, we as leaders must make the best decision in the interest of educators and students. SCS family, if I ever needed you before, I need you now to stand with me as we RETURN STRONGER. I need you to stand with STRENGTH to accept the things we cannot change, the COURAGE to change the things we can and the WISDOM to know the difference. 

We are stronger together. Coronavirus will not defeat us. We are 901!
Dr. Joris M. Ray,