Lunch duty, physical education, class size: Tennessee school systems seek hundreds of waivers from state mandates

Elementary school students in Tennessee are required to have physical education class twice a week for a total of 60 minutes under a new state law that takes effect this fall. But 58 school districts are seeking waivers from the law due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Alan Petersime)

Wanting flexibility for a school year of uncertainty, more than half of Tennessee districts have asked for one-year waivers to state mandates ranging from duty-free lunch periods for teachers to new physical education requirements for students.

Hundreds of waiver requests have already been submitted by 79 school systems to the Tennessee Department of Education. More are expected in the coming months as schools reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first round of requests will be considered on Friday by the state Board of Education. That vote will offer an early glimpse of how far Tennessee will go to help schools navigate COVID-19 at the expense of statewide policies aimed at improving the quality of public education. 

“I think districts are trying to cover their bases and ensure maximum flexibility for scheduling entering into a year when things are so uncertain,” said Sara Morrison, the board’s executive director. “They’re probably thinking through and requesting what they may need, not necessarily what they’re going to use.”

That’s apparently the intention of Shelby County Schools, which is seeking a waiver that potentially could take away a lunch period free of school-related responsibilities for teachers in the state’s largest district. On Tuesday, a district official said school leaders in Memphis currently have no plans to use that waiver, if approved.

“The F in our S.A.F.E. Re-Entry Plan stands for flexibility,” said spokeswoman Jerica Phillips. “As the district has explored various approaches to addressing the reopening of schools, we wanted to ensure maximum flexibility in planning and options to adjust meal services in the event that some school situations required serving lunch in classrooms to achieve social distancing.”

Here’s a rundown of the state mandates that have drawn the most waiver requests thus far:

Tom Cronan Physical Education Act. Even before COVID struck, the new mandate was unpopular with superintendents, 58 of whom have now asked for a waiver from its requirements.

Signed by then-Gov. Bill Haslam in 2018 and set to go into effect this fall, the law requires every elementary student in Tennessee to have two physical education classes a week for a total of at least 60 minutes. It also raises the level of credentials required to teach those classes. The goal is to address Tennessee’s soaring childhood obesity rate by encouraging young students to learn about and adopt a healthy lifestyle. 

But the law, which was named after an East Tennessee educator who was passionate about fitness, has been debated in the legislature for years, both before and after its passage. Numerous superintendents testified that the change will increase staffing costs and scheduling headaches.

Despite new challenges to schooling created under COVID, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is urging the state to forge ahead with the new requirements. In a July 13 letter to the state board, McNally argued that physical education will help students focus better and manage stress.

“With this pandemic going on, it’s important to keep children healthy and active, especially those children who will be learning in a remote environment,” wrote McNally, who leads the state Senate. “They need breaks, with plenty of activity, from being on a computer all day.”

The education department has recommended granting the waiver, while staff for the state board favors keeping the minimum time for physical education and waiving only the requirement that the classes be taught by a licensed teacher with an endorsement or specialization in physical education. 

Tennessee has previously not required schools to provide a minimum weekly number of minutes for physical education. The state has, however, required elementary schools to set aside time for physical activity such as recess and high school graduates to earn credits in physical education and wellness.

Duty-free lunch period. While Tennessee requires schools to schedule breaks for teachers during their students’ lunch periods, 56 districts have asked for waivers so students can eat in their classroom under the supervision of their teacher. The change is consistent with state and federal guidance to avoid congregating students in cafeterias to curb exposure to the highly contagious respiratory virus.

Staff for both the department and board have recommended approving the waiver requests.

“This is one area where we think flexibility is needed — but only for this school year and only under the auspices of COVID,” said Charlie Bufalino, the department’s assistant commissioner of policy and legislative affairs.

Groups representing teachers call the change “a big ask for educators.”

“There’s got to be another way to address this then to take away from teachers again,” said JC Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee. “Teachers look forward to that duty-free lunch, not only to eat but to return personal phone calls and check on their own children and family members.”

Class size. Fifty districts are seeking waivers on average class size requirements of 20 students in K-3; 25 students in grades 4-6; and 30 students in grades 7-12. 

Another 49 districts want wiggle room on the maximum class sizes of 25 students in K-3; 30 students in grades 4-6; and 35 students in grades 7-12.

The requirements apply to both in-person and online classes.

Staff has recommended approving waiver requests regarding average class size, but denying those seeking to extend the maximum.

Required number of school days. Twenty-six districts want waivers on the 180 days of instruction required by Tennessee. Staff has recommended the board deny those requests.

Last month, state education leaders warned school communities not to expect blanket waivers regarding instructional time in the new academic year, even if the virus disrupts classrooms for a second straight year.

Instead, the board approved an emergency policy requiring district and charter leaders to submit plans by July 24 for how their school communities will teach students in 2020-21 while navigating the public health crisis. That could include remote learning, traditional in-person classes, or a combination of the two.

Teacher planning time. State law requires districts to give teachers at least 2½ hours of in-school planning time each week to work on lesson plans, grade student assignments, collaborate with their colleagues, and manage other responsibilities. But nine districts want flexibility on that requirement in 2020-21 — a request that should be denied, according to recommendations by department and state board staff.

“We view that request as a bridge too far,” Bufalino said on behalf of the department.

In the state’s 2019 survey of educators, Tennessee teachers reported greater job satisfaction if their planning time is protected.

The board’s agenda for Friday is here, including a link to livestream the meeting.

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