Governor urges all Tennessee schools to close as coronavirus spreads; Schwinn seeks federal waivers on TNReady testing

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday urged all Tennessee districts to shutter schools “as soon as practically possible” for the rest of March to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

All public schools should be closed by this Friday, he said, encouraging a shutdown that will affect almost 1 million students and their families.

Districts that had not already canceled classes for the month quickly responded. Metro Nashville and Knox County announced that schools will be closed through at least April 3. Shelby County Schools, which last week canceled classes in Memphis through March, extended its shutdown and won’t reopen before April 6, while schools in Chattanooga won’t reopen until at least April 13.

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday requested a federal waiver related to statewide TNReady testing, which is set to begin mid-April and is required for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. 

Schwinn said Tennessee’s top education priority now is ensuring that low-income students — who rely on school to receive breakfast and lunch – continue to be fed while their districts are closed. On Monday, the Department of Education received two federal waivers providing schools with flexibility to prepare meals and then to deliver them to students.

The developments spotlight the hour-by-hour decisions happening at the state Capitol and school communities in response to the global pandemic.

The General Assembly rushed Monday toward passing a balanced budget and recessing before the week’s end, which could leave big education issues such as the governor’s comprehensive literacy proposal on the table until lawmakers reconvene.

“We have jointly decided to limit all remaining legislative business to fulfilling our constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget, and any associated actions that will ensure Tennessee can keep its doors open,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton said in a joint statement.

Lee’s administration has recently come under fire for its handling of the coronavirus when it comes to public schools.

Last week, the governor emphasized that it was up to the leaders of individual school systems to judge how best to manage the virus. And Schwinn left it up to the legislature to decide whether to scrap state tests.

Even Monday, Lee stopped short of ordering all schools to close, as governors in 32 states have done in one of the most dramatic upheavals to American schooling in a century.

“Superintendents and local leadership have the full support of my administration to determine effective dates for closure this week as they evaluate what is best for families within their respective district,” the governor said.

Those positions began to draw the ire of some superintendents and lawmakers over the weekend.

“I was hopeful that the Tennessee Department of Education would take a lead role in dismissing schools or reducing the 180-day requirement [for schools to be in session],” wrote James Atkins, Grainger County’s superintendent, in a Facebook post on Saturday.

Atkins took issue with department guidance issued on Friday and advising districts against closing schools unless notified of a lab-confirmed COVID-19 illness in a student or staff member.

“I respectfully disagree with the department of education, and I absolutely will not wait until we have a confirmed case before we close schools,” Atkins wrote. “I intend to be proactive instead of reactive.”

In his five-sentence statement on Monday, the governor said the state will issue more guidance to school systems regarding school closures prior to March 31.

“We understand the tremendous burden school closure places on families and we will continue to work with both the federal government and school districts to ensure we continue essential supports like meals for students in need,” said Lee, who declared a state of emergency last week.

The governor’s call for a shutdown came one day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended canceling any events with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.

“We are relieved to see Gov. Bill Lee take decisive action to protect students, educators and families,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, adding that it would be “irresponsible to keep our public schools open.”

Brown also called for the state to cancel state testing this year, as well as its evaluation system for teachers in non-tested grades. “There will be a significant loss of classroom time for students, and the continuity of instruction critical to building knowledge will be disrupted,” she said in a statement.

TNReady testing is scheduled to begin as soon as April 13, although districts have some leeway on exactly when. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released new guidance saying that states could apply to be able to skip the required tests for closed schools this year. But even with a waiver, Schwinn told lawmakers that only the legislature has authority to cancel the annual assessment — and that the administration is working on several options “for immediate consideration.”

Some Tennessee leaders suggested that Schwinn already has authority under state law to suspend testing, as her predecessor, Candice McQueen, did in 2016 after the failed online rollout of the new TNReady assessment.

On Monday, Rep. Scott Cepicky asked the governor to direct Schwinn to suspend testing for the year as several lawmakers began to draft legislation to put any questions to rest. “With the pressure our schools are already facing navigating the COVID-19 outbreak, the last thing our schools need is the undue burden of preparing and administering statewide assessments,” the Culleoka Republican wrote Lee.

He added that the “unique circumstances” of both COVID-19 and recent tornado damage in Middle Tennessee “will undeniably affect our accountability system due to school closures or student absences.”

“Districts and educators should also be held harmless,” Cepicky said of TNReady test results, which the state uses to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for their performance.

Rep. Jeremy Faison, a Republican from Cosby, was more assuring.

“Please know that you will not be accountable for classrooom instruction that you did not complete,” Faison told educators in a tweet. “We are working with the Feds (ESSA) on stopping the testing requirements.”

In a related matter, U.S. Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee asked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to immediately grant any state requests for a one-year waiver from testing.