Tennessee’s share of federal stimulus money for schools estimated at $260 million

Tennessee is expected to receive almost $260 million in emergency school funds from the federal government to respond to the coronavirus, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told district superintendents on Friday.

The money will go toward critical expenses including technology to support remote learning, summer and after-school programs to address learning gaps, mental health services, support for students with special needs, sanitizing buildings, and planning for long-term closures.

Districts are expected to receive their shares by June, according to a presentation to superintendents obtained by Chalkbeat.

The one-time funding is part of the federal government’s $2 trillion stimulus package signed last week by President Donald Trump. 

While needed, the $260 million is modest compared to the $6 billion that Tennessee spends each year on K-12 schools.

In February, before the virus spread and shuttered schools nationwide, Gov. Bill Lee had proposed new investments to public schools totaling more than a half billion dollars. But the public health crisis created by COVID-19 has spurred a likely recession and resulted in a revised budget that slashed those investments. It’s also forced educators and policymakers to rethink how children are taught. 

At least 10 states already have canceled classes for the rest of the school year and, at Lee’s urging, Tennessee school buildings are shuttered through at least April 24. Many officials believe Tennessee won’t reopen schools this academic year.

“We hope this is over soon,” Schwinn wrote in her presentation to district leaders. “However, we must also plan for every possibility, including present and future closures.” 

That means giving students distance learning opportunities now and preparing to provide remediation learning when the new school year begins in August. The presentation said districts should be prepared to “execute distance learning, if needed,” next school year.

The money is being distributed to states and districts based on their numbers of students from low-income families. Tennessee must distribute at least 90% of its share directly to school systems and could choose to spend the rest itself, including through “grants or contracts.”

Schwinn is seeking feedback from district leaders on how best to spend the state’s portion and also is asking for public input through an online survey. She expects to apply for the relief funds by April 17, soon after the application window opens through the U.S. Department of Education.

In a statement released later on Friday, Schwinn said the state education department is focused on making sure districts have the resources needed to support students.

“The CARES Act will provide critical one-time relief funds that will flow directly to school districts to help them address immediate needs to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” she said, “but we know districts need additional supports to continue instruction and critical services that all children so deserve.”