NASHVILLE—Abigail Alexander shuffles through a stack of papers trying to find instructions for logging in to her school-issued laptop.
The 10-year-old chats with fellow fifth grader and her best friend about who is in their classes this year at Head Middle Magnet Prep in Nashville and what period they have a specific teacher.
“Where is my charger?” her friend asks absentmindedly.
“Maybe your brother has it?” Abigail responds.
The girls’ conversation sounds like a typical one between excited, anxious students on their first day at a new school — except this year’s first day of school is unlike most.
Abigail, who lives in North Nashville is sitting at her dining room table while her two younger foster siblings play around the table. Her friend is on FaceTime, the phone propped up against the side of Abigail’s laptop.
The girls are among more than 86,000 Nashville students who are starting the school year virtually while their schools remain closed due the ongoing spread of the coronavirus in the region and across the state.
And like many students whose schools are shuttered, they are both experiencing access issues — to technology, school resources and the other services that schools offer millions of students across the country.
Other students in neighboring districts are facing some different issues, like whether to return to their classrooms in-person and how to keep themselves safe and away from the coronavirus while they are there.
“I need help!” Abigail exclaims, as her laptop again fails to load or connect to the internet.
“Seriously,” her friend responds.
Setting the stage for the nation
Just miles away from Abigail’s North Nashville home, dozens of students are returning to school buildings in Sumner County.
Despite increasing COVID-19 cases across Tennessee — Sumner specifically has remained among the counties reporting the highest case counts during the pandemic — the majority of the state’s school districts are reopening in-person this August.
Some of the suburban districts that surround Nashville and others in East Tennessee are among the first in the country to welcome back students since they closed in the spring.
These districts set the stage for others across the state and the nation in the coming weeks. Williamson County Schools start Friday, for instance.
Nashville students’ success — or failure — with virtual learning will also inform the state’s largest district of what to avoid when Shelby County Schools in Memphis launches virtually on Aug. 31.
For many, the debate between reopening schools or learning from home has been a fraught one.
Parents, educators, elected officials and even doctors haven’t agreed on the best course of action for the country’s students.
The American Academy of Pediatrics initially recommended schools reopen, but as President Donald Trump has pressured districts to do so, the group said that local public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence. The group said reopening plans should start with the goal of getting students back in person, but in some communities schools may have to remain closed or start back virtually.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s leading expert on the coronavirus, told teachers during a virtual town hall last month they’d “be part of the experiment” of reopening schools.
That sentiment was echoed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee when he announced the state’s own guidance for reopening schools, pushing for in-person instruction.
“There’s going to be a nationwide experiment in this,” Lee said during a July 28 news conference. “But it’s a nationwide commitment to kids.”
But the Tennessee Education Association and local teacher associations have called for districts to delay reopening by holding mock funeral processions, “die in” protests and arguing that teachers will quit. Parents who are reluctant to send their children back to school also lament districts’ online learning plans.
And it hasn’t taken long for new COVID-19 cases to emerge among Tennessee districts and those across the country who have resumed in-person instruction.
Cases reported in schools since reopening
At least 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases connected to schools have already been reported in Tennessee and two school districts, Coffee County Schools and Blount County Schools, have closed schools or altered their schedules as a result of exposures to the virus.
Alcoa City Schools in East Tennessee has reported at least five confirmed COVID-19 cases since the district reopened on July 22, spread across the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.
At least 16 students are quarantining for the next two weeks after a staff member tested positive at John Sevier Elementary School in Maryville and Blount County Schools has already reverted to a staggered, hybrid schedule because of rising infection rates.
Eighteen of Metro Nashville Public Schools own teachers are also quarantining after two staff members tested positive after attending a pre-planning session at Smith Springs Elementary School ahead of the new school year.
For families, and even teachers, worried about exposure to the virus at school, most districts offer families some sort of remote learning option, but many parents say they need to send their children to school regardless of their fears. They have no choice.
‘It’s a hard choice’
Christy Lockwood’s daughter is a rising junior at Merrol Hyde Magnet School in Sumner County.
Lockwood said she had “no choice” but to send her daughter to school in-person, even though she would have been more comfortable continuing virtual learning at home — one of the classes her daughter needs is not available online.
Her daughter — equipped with a mask and hand sanitizer at all times — is looking forward to seeing her friends again but is old enough to understand the “severity” of the virus. Lockwood said she has diabetes and knows that the impact to her could be severe if she is exposed to COVID-19.
Exposure was also a concern for Sumner parent Jessica Jones, who initially enrolled her son in kindergarten but ended up keeping him home. The decision, she said, “wasn’t made lightly.”
“It’s a hard choice, but I’m thankful that we have the option,” Jones said. Her biggest concern now is that he won’t have the speech teacher he saw weekly, but the family is looking into other options.
“I don’t think there’s a wrong choice, though,” she said.
Other Sumner County families felt forced into sending their children back to school Monday, though most will only attend in-person two days a week.
Like many districts, Sumner County Schools is beginning the school year with a phase-in hybrid plan and staggered student schedules.
Students whose last names begin with A through K attend traditional, in-person classes on Monday and Thursday and stay home to do online learning on the remaining days. Students whose last names begin with L through Z will attend traditional classes Tuesday and Friday.
In nearby Williamson County, the youngest students are expected to return to school first. Pre-K through second grade will return to campuses Friday, with a requirement to wear masks and practice social distancing, but students in grades 3-12 will do remote learning at home for the first two weeks of school.
At least 100 parents rallied outside of the Williamson County Administrative Complex Tuesday, calling for Superintendent Jason Golden and the school board to allow parents to decide whether to send their children to school in person.
Many parents calling for schools to reopen worry about the quality of the remote instruction their children will receive.
Most districts have cobbled together virtual instruction plans with students logging on to various learning management platforms to access self-paced course content or join live video meetings over Zoom, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams with their teachers and classmates.
But many districts, in Tennessee and across the country, have called for more funding from state and local governments to provide technology and internet access to students, even while they face threatened funding cuts from the federal government if they don’t reopen.
Nashville students’ tech woes were limited to the students using district-issued devices Tuesday morning.
Some students and families were able to get online to join live classroom meetings or check in with their teachers on personal devices for the first day, but some of those dependent on devices provided by the district were left in the dark, exacerbating fears that gaps will continue to widen between vulnerable students like those of color or who come from economically-disadvantaged families and more affluent peers.
Heather Powell interrupted her work day to let her son, Hawkes, 6, use her work laptop to log in to a virtual meeting with his first grade class Tuesday morning.
The Powells had logged on to both their children’s laptops the day before making sure they could get online, but come Tuesday morning a Metro Nashville Public Schools network issue rendered the laptops useless for the time being.
“It already disrupted my workflow this morning,” Powell said. “It worked today, but it won’t work for the long term.”
Powell’s daughter, Sophie, 9, was at a friend’s house as part of a learning pod that morning, but only one child had a personal device she could use to log-in.
“I’ll be anxious to talk to Sophie and hear how their morning went,” Powell said. “[Sophie’s] best friend is in her class, too, and she called last night and I heard them talking about what their expectations sort of were and who might be in their class.”
The struggle to balance working full-time at home, keeping both her children engaged and meeting their social-emotional needs are why Powell tracked down learning pods for her children.
Parents across the country have turned to learning pods, or in-person microschools, for their kids while schools are closed. Some are banding together with nearby neighbors and others are linking up with classmates from the same school or grade level and hiring private tutors or teachers to lead instruction and provide childcare.
Costs vary and some schools are helping families join mods or connect with each other while in some cities across the country, families are dolling out hundreds of dollars to pay for private instruction or to send their children to “virtual learning camps.”
In some areas, families are pulling children out of the public school system to send them to private schools that are reopening in-person or to homeschool with their own curriculum instead.
Both of the Powell children’s pods will stick to Metro Nashville Schools’ curriculum. The student will rotate each house for a week, Powell explained, with the family serving as host. She hopes the tutor will relieve the burden on the working parents, so she can concentrate on work while the kids are learning.
As for the first day, Powell called it quits and took the second half of the day off after the frantic morning. She and Hawkes were going to go to the pool.
“I think that’s what we need today,” she said.
When parents, families don’t have options
Abigail’s mother, LaTonya Alexander, isn’t sure what she would have chosen for her children even if she had a choice in Nashville.
She and her husband have had to shift their work schedules so someone is at home at all times with her three children and two foster children, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Alexander’s daughter, Anaya, is an exceptional education student and a senior in high school. Her son, Wilton, is starting the 10th grade. Both would prefer to be at school, Alexander said.
She has more confidence that older children could have taken health and safety precautions like wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing seriously. Remote learning is more difficult for younger students.
LaTonya Alexander is a hair stylist and her husband a barber, so exposure is already a concern. As a Black family, they are also among the Americans who are getting infected and dying at disproportionately higher rates than white people.
So the Alexanders are dependent on the laptops distributed by Metro Nashville Public Schools. With five kids in the house, there isn’t enough work space — much less technology — to go around.
The family picked up four laptops, among more than 34,000 that the district has distributed to students so far just a day before the first day of school, but the youngest, a kindergartener, doesn’t have a device.
“I wish I could meet my teacher,” the kindergartner said, Tuesday morning.
Instead, she sat quietly next to Abigail at the family’s dining room table, snacking on grapes and watching the other children try to log on to their computers.
Reporter Kelly Fisher contributed to this story.
Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.