Up to 750 Memphis students will walk into class soon to find their teacher greeting them via video conference.

The Shelby County Schools board voted unanimously on Tuesday evening with no further discussion to approve a $841,000 contract with Proximity Learning, an online teaching company that helps districts across the nation fill teacher vacancies.

The district plans to hire six teachers at five high schools in core subjects that require specialized teaching licenses and start within three weeks. The teachers will instruct students in real time via video conferencing while an educational assistant monitors the classroom and assists students. The subjects and schools are:

  • Algebra I and II at G.W. Carver High School
  • Algebra I at Northwest Prep High School
  • Algebra I at Kingsbury High School
  • Biology at Central High School
  • U.S. history at Wooddale High School

“The students will still receive direct instruction from a high-quality expert,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said last week, while acknowledging the situation was “not ideal.”

Shelby County Schools board chairwoman Miska Clay Bibbs, left, and Superintendent Joris Ray
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

School systems nationwide are struggling to hire and retain enough teachers, prompting district leaders to look beyond traditional hiring practices. Shelby County Schools had 117 classroom openings as of last week, seven of them in high school core classes. Since last week, the district filled a vacancy previously identified at Douglass High School. The district had not provided a full list of vacancies to board members as of Monday.

Some board members initially rejected the remote teaching idea in a committee meeting, but support mounted last week as district leaders explained their desperation.

Yolanda Martin, the district’s newly appointed chief of human resources, said the teacher vacancies have forced the district to combine some classrooms, which means they may exceed the class size limits set by the state. Other classrooms have long-term substitutes.

Even if schools eventually fill their openings with in-person teachers, a study out of Brown University found that students without a permanent teacher on the first day of school score lower on tests.

Martin said parents with children in the selected classes will receive automated phone calls, texts, and emails about the remote teachers. The district is planning an event for parents to participate in a mock lesson so they can see how the online learning works. The Proximity Learning teachers will be available for parent/teacher conferences via video, email, and text.

Keith Williams, the executive director for the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the district would not have to resort to remote teaching if leaders increased teacher pay.

“You get what you paid for. We have a teacher shortage in this district for a reason,” he told board members during the meeting Tuesday. “If we are about to spend $800,000 to bring in Proximity Learning, that will not fill the void in classrooms. That money will be much better spent on salaries on those who are working here and attracting others.”