State Board rejects school districts requests to waive physical education and class size

Students at Rocketship play in their brand new gym.
The Tennessee Board of Education rejected requests from dozens of school districts to waive the requirement for 60 minutes of physical education for students. (G. Tatter)

Stressing the need for physical activity for students, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, the Tennessee State Board of Education on Friday rejected nearly 60 requests from local districts to waive physical education requirements for the upcoming school year.

Board members also refused to sign off on requests from 49 districts that sought a break from the maximum class sizes.  

But citing the need for districts to adhere to social distancing guidelines, the board granted 56 requests to waive duty-free lunch breaks for teachers. 

Friday’s requests were the first COVID-related waivers that the board was asked to consider. Districts in Tennessee and across the country are seeking flexibility from testing and other burdensome rules and regulations as they focus efforts on opening schools safely this fall.

Staff from the Department of Education and the state board reviewed each request to determine whether a waiver could be granted based on state or federal law and whether granting a waiver would pose even greater safety risks in schools.

These were the most requested waivers:

Physical education. This is the first year that districts will be required to offer elementary school students two physical education classes a week for a total of at least 60 minutes. The 2018 state mandate, known as the Tom Cronan Physical Education Act and named after a Tennessee educator who promoted wellness, also requires a certified physical education teacher.

Districts from Arlington and Bartlett in West Tennessee to Blount County and Maryville in East Tennessee had petitioned the state seeking relief from the requirement during the pandemic. Board members were willing to waive the physical education certification for teachers this year, but not the 60 minutes of physical activity. 

Board member Mike Edwards said schools have focused on STEM and other subjects at the expense of physical education, which is also important.

Board member Bob Eby said they have a responsibility to ensure the needs for the whole child are met. 

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“We’re all concerned about the impact of the ‘COVID slide’ and how we’ll respond academically to that,” Eby said of the learning loss that was caused when campuses closed in the spring. “But I’m just as concerned about the impact of all of those ‘COVID sliders’ that we have eaten and that our students have eaten,” he said, making a pun referring to hamburger sliders.

Duty-free lunch period. Tennessee requires schools to schedule breaks for teachers during their students’ lunch period, but many districts are keeping students in classrooms for lunch and want teachers to supervise. The board granted waivers to 56 districts. Staff had recommended approval noting the change allows districts to adhere to state and federal guidance to avoid congregating students in cafeterias to curb exposure to the virus. 

Class size maximum. Board members denied waivers because of a provision in state law that stipulates that neither the board nor the education department can grant waivers to the maximum class size of 25 students in K-3; 30 students in grades 4-6; and 35 students in grades 7-12.

Class size averages. Board members approved the requests from 50 districts who sought 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.

School bus transit. Under state law, no student can be in transit on a bus to school more than an hour and a half. Some districts said while they’re running more routes, they’re also instituting more safety protocols like temperature checks, which could lengthen the time of bus trips. The board approved those waivers and increased the maximum time allowed in transit to two hours.

180-day instruction time. State law requires students to have 180 days of instruction for 6½ hours a day. This week, school districts were required to submit a plan detailing how they will continue providing educational services even in an emergency situation where they may have to move to remote instruction. Board members followed staff recommendations and rejected waivers to that requirement. 

Individual planning time. The requirement that teachers have a certain number of planning hours per week was upheld. Department staff weighed the districts’ requests for flexibility for scheduling against the need for teachers who will likely need more time for lesson planning. Board members agreed, noting that the duty-free lunch time has been taken from teachers.

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