With Tennessee schools shuttered, home instruction will look different depending on where you live

Tennessee school communities are getting a crash course in “distance learning,” a style of education in which teachers and students are physically separated during instruction.

With the new coronavirus showing no signs of waning, Gov. Bill Lee’s call this week to keep schools shuttered through at least April 24 heightened the need to create avenues for the state’s 1 million public students to learn at home. 

But that’s shaping up to look very different, depending on where a student lives — whether due to the size of their school system, disparities in technology access, a lack of internet service, or even the cultural ethos of a school system.

In Memphis, where two-thirds of students don’t have access to take-home digital devices and a third of households are without internet access, some teachers with Shelby County Schools are recording lessons to be viewed on the district’s TV station or online. The district is also partnering with local TV news station WMC to broadcast those lessons. 

Printed learning packets are being distributed, as are meals at 62 Memphis sites designated for student meal pickups.

The immediate goal is to engage students who have now been home for a week and a half, due to spring break and the public health emergency. 

“This is new territory for all of us,” said Angela Whitelaw, the district’s deputy superintendent.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves the state’s most diverse student population, is providing printed and online materials, while partnering with the local PBS affiliate to present daily “enrichment programs.”

“We know that many circumstances prevent some students from accessing internet sources, including a virtual/on-line curriculum. Therefore, there are no plans for remote/virtual learning at this time,” said an email sent to parents of one Nashville school.

A third of Tennessee students live in rural areas where many households have neither high-speed internet service nor cell phone service.

So in Polk County, where only half of the rural district’s 2,400 students have internet access, school leaders spent this week’s spring break scrambling to create online and printed lessons. Next week, the printed packets will be available outside of schools for parents to pick up.

“We’re kind of building this plane while it’s flying,” said Jason Bell, a supervisor for the East Tennessee district.

“My big hope from this crisis is that people will recognize that the digital divide is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed,” said Bell, who serves on the board for the Tennessee Rural Education Association. “Take away the crisis, and students and families are still dealing every day with that divide. It creates inequality, and it’s not fair.”

By contrast, all 5,400 students in Maryville City Schools have a district-issued laptop or iPad and, through a combination of home internet services and hot spots, “we are very close to 100% access to both a device and the internet,” said Superintendent Mike Winstead.

The district, which is south of Knoxville, was well positioned to respond quickly to the COVID-19 shutdowns after launching its iReach initiative in 2014 to get all students wired.

On Wednesday, the school system began to provide up to three hours of daily online instruction as teachers held “digital office hours” to interact with students and parents via email and online chats.

 “We can’t replicate what will happen in a seven-hour day with online instruction,” Winstead said, “but we can focus on essential standards that will be the most critical for the next school year.”

 That means local testing and accountability for students in Maryville, one of the few districts choosing that path.

 “This isn’t play time; it’s school,” said Winstead. “We won’t be punitive if there’s a legitimate difficulty, but if a student has every means and opportunity to engage and chooses not to, then their grades will take a hit.”

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has said that testing — and whether to hold students accountable for the results — are local decisions, since the legislature last week approved an emergency plan to drop state testing requirements for the year.

“We’re not worried about accountability at this point,” said Polk County’s Bell of his district’s decision not to test students over the material. “We just don’t want a months-long gap in instruction or emotional support. Some kids go to school for a safe space. We want our teachers checking in on our students.”

Meanwhile, Schwinn announced that Tennessee is partnering with all six of the state’s PBS television stations to deliver daily instruction for students beginning on April 6 from 10 a.m. to noon Central Time. Four hours of additional content will be streamed overnight, which viewers can record.

The education department is seeking teachers to record the PBS lessons in math and English language arts using a classroom setting. Other teachers are being recruited to answer phones for a statewide homework hotline.

“This is an incredible example of Tennesseans coming together to support kids,” Schwinn said.