First lady Melania Trump talks with Tennessee governor about protecting the health and well-being of children

First lady Melania Trump visits with children in February 2020 at the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

First lady Melania Trump spoke this week with Gov. Bill Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, about Tennessee’s efforts to address the mental and physical health needs of children and families.

The call on Wednesday came as Lee’s administration on Thursday named 38 members to its long-promised COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force. The group is tasked with making sure Tennessee students are safe, fed, and supported during extended school building closures caused by the public health crisis. 

The conversation between Mrs. Trump and Tennessee’s Republican governor was arranged to discuss aspects of the state’s “whole child” initiative, including how the new task force will partner with local nonprofit agencies, churches, and other organizations to check on at-risk students.

As the nation’s first lady, Mrs. Trump has spoken on issues affecting children, even as President Donald Trump has backed policies separating immigrant children from their parents. Cutting child poverty rates also has not been a focus of the Trump administration, which has slashed an array of federal programs designed to help struggling families and children get by. Still, the first lady’s interest in whole child education and well-being spotlights an approach to schooling that seeks to make students not only healthy and safe but also engaged, supported, and challenged.

“The first lady spoke about the importance of ensuring the well-being of all children, including minority children who may face additional barriers to care,” said a statement from the White House, “and Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn described how Tennessee is working to reduce barriers and using COVID-19 testing sites as an additional way to connect communities in need with other critical social services.”

Schwinn made educating the “whole child” one of three priorities in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan unveiled in November. Since the pandemic hit, she has continued to emphasize the role of students’ social and emotional health in academics, although funding for a $250 million student mental health trust fund was cut from the state budget as tax revenues plummeted this spring. 

After the governor urged that buildings stay closed for the school year due to the coronavirus, the commissioner announced on April 15 that she would assemble a well-being task force. Asked why its rollout is coming with six weeks left before the planned start of the new school year, a spokeswoman said the impacts of closing school buildings on students’ wellbeing “will likely continue to emerge throughout the summer, into school reopening and beyond.”

Members of the task force, which is scheduled to meet for the first time next week, are:

  • Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis
  • Naomi Asher, executive director, United Way of Anderson County 
  • Janet Ayers, president, The Ayers Foundation 
  • Guy Barnard, co-founder, Synchronous Health 
  • Jared Bigham, senior adviser, Workforce and Rural Initiatives, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry 
  • Molly Blankenship, executive director, Chattanooga 2.0 
  • Sonji Branch, CEO, Communities in Schools-Memphis 
  • Linda Brown, board president, The ARC 
  • Mary Nell Bryan, president, Children’s Hospital Alliance of Tennessee 
  • Juliana Ospina Cano, executive director, Conexión Américas 
  • Nancy Dishner, president and CEO, Niswonger Foundation 
  • Clark Flatt, president, The Jason Foundation 
  • Alexis Gwin-Miller, co-chair, Education Equity Taskforce, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope  
  • Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin
  • Chief Richard Hall, board president, Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police 
  • Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga
  • Katie Harbison, president, Chambliss Center 
  • Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville
  • Kim Henderson, president, Tennessee PTA 
  • Melissa Hudson-Gant, CEO, Big Brothers/Big Sisters 
  • Beth Goodner, CEO, Trust Point Hospital 
  • Elaine Jackson, president, Rural Health Association of Tennessee 
  • Cato Johnson, vice president, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare 
  • David Jordan, president and CEO, Agape Memphis 
  • Shawn Kimble, director, Lauderdale County Schools 
  • Kati Lohr, co-founder, Synchronous Health 
  • Amy Martin, president, Tennessee Cable and Broadband Association 
  • Jerry Martin, president, YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South 
  • Johnny McDaniel, outgoing superintendent, Lawrence County Schools 
  • Brian McLaughlin, Tennessee Teacher of the Year 
  • Jeff Moorhouse, director, Kingsport City Schools 
  • Chapple Osborne-Arnold, program specialist, Save the Children 
  • Kristen Robinson, advocacy coordinator, Disability Rights Tennessee 
  • Patrick Sheehy, president, Tennessee Business Roundtable 
  • Flora Tydings, president, Tennessee Board of Regents 
  • LeAndrea Ware, Tennessee Principal of the Year 
  • Angela Webster, executive director, Association of Infant Mental Health in Tennessee
  • Samantha Wigand, CEO, Communities in Schools
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