Shelby County students will return from spring break to a situation that remains dire for them.
Following two academic years defined by remote instruction, quarantines, cancelled activities, social distancing, obstructed faces, plexiglass barriers and taped-off water fountains, the learning gaps have grown larger.
In Shelby County schools, only 11 percent of students are performing at grade level. There are similar warning signs in districts across the country. Children are severely behind in reading. Students are struggling with mental health problems. Dramatically more teen girls are attempting suicide.
Sadly, all of this has happened despite the COVID precautions imparting no benefit. Plexiglass desk shields did nothing. Mask mandates made no difference. And schools with fewer restrictions avoided the learning loss and mental health issues.
But to make matters worse, Shelby County Schools sank millions of dollars into an unproven technology that could be putting students at a greater health risk.
The district spent $24.7 million in federal CARES Act funds to install bipolar ionization devices in the HVAC systems of all 172 schools and its administrative offices. Meanwhile, consumers have filed a class action lawsuit against the technology’s promoters, alleging “deceptive, misleading and false” claims about the product.
The Daily Memphian provides this reaction from Dr. Parham Azizi of Harvard University’s T.H. Chen School of Public Health:
“Wow. Just wow… When you are increasing ion levels three-fold or more, that’s not a good idea… They are mostly not effective in solving the problem (of indoor air quality), while they potentially can have adverse health impacts that are not fully understood.”
The school system is finally pivoting away from COVID measures and has dropped the mask requirement. But unfortunately some leaders are busy with a rebranding or other pursuits. One board member resigned to run for a different political office in a new district.
The last thing Shelby County students need right now is absent leadership, but this week an interim board member will be chosen from among seven applicants.
None of these candidates identified literacy as their top priority, but the district says it could require hundreds of second graders to attend summer school in order to boost their reading skills.
Half of every dollar collected by the county funds education. It’s safe to say taxpayers would like to see more of a return on that investment.
The County Commission has been unified in making pre-kindergarten readiness a priority, but the gains from that early education must be nurtured and built upon as students transition into the K-12 system. District leaders should focus on developing those fundamental skills and keep themselves from being distracted by the political agenda de jour.
Students are returning to the classroom. It’s time for the adults to get their heads back in the game, too.