New emergency rules address likelihood Tennessee schools will not reopen this academic year

Emergency rules approved Thursday to guide Tennessee schools during the coronavirus crisis “cover the possibility that schools will not resume” this school year, said the executive director of the State Board of Education.

The board approved about a dozen rules that enable high school seniors to graduate on time, student grades to be calculated, and student teachers to obtain a temporary teaching license despite disruptions to the school year caused by the infectious disease.

The rules — which also direct the state to drop overall effectiveness scores in this year’s teacher evaluations — position Tennessee to weather the rest of the school year in remote learning mode. 

Most Tennessee schools dismiss students in May, so that leaves “very little opportunity for our students to finish out in any meaningful way,” said Executive Director Sara Morrison.

Gov. Bill Lee has called for school buildings to remain closed through at least April 24, and most school leaders believe they won’t be reopened. Earlier this week, he said his administration is assessing the school year day-to-day and making that call when “it’s the right time.”

Some critics have questioned why the governor hasn’t already ordered schools shuttered for the rest of the school year, as at least 15 governors have done. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf became the latest governor to do so with his order on Thursday.

But several district administrators have told Chalkbeat that such an action could make it harder for school systems to keep students participating in remote learning programs that are online, on paper, and on television.

“I’m happy that the governor is taking a wait-and-see approach and not shutting us down in one fatal swoop,” said Maryville City Schools Superintendent Mike Winstead. “Summer break has not started yet, and this keeps our kids engaged.”

Schools can take attendance for those programs but, under one of the newly approved emergency rules, they can’t issue unexcused absences or report students as truant for failing to participate.

Thus far, Lee has only urged schools to close, but his spokesman said this week that the governor has statutory authority to order them closed.

The state board meeting was conducted via teleconference. 

Among the more controversial rules was one about how to calculate grades for high school students, since their grade point average factors in to decisions on college admissions, placement, and scholarships. 

The rule directs districts to assign those grades based on student performance as of March 20, the day all Tennessee schools were to be closed under the governor’s directive. But it also gives leeway for students to raise their grades if their district is grading assignments in remote learning programs. That raises equity concerns because most school systems are not giving grades. In Tennessee, a GPA of 3.0 or a 21 on the ACT college entrance exam qualifies graduates for Tennessee’s HOPE scholarship.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said he supported the rule.

“The HOPE scholarship looks at the full breadth of a student’s academic experience, which is eight semesters of high school. The actions of the board today only impact the last six weeks of that experience,” he said. “That is a helpful perspective.”