Schwinn to consider waivers to shift schools to virtual learning as COVID cases spike in Tennessee

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn speaks at an Aug. 2 news conference about the results of spring testing and the importance in-person learning. On Friday, she said she wanted to give districts flexibility to shift online to respond to COVID outbreaks. (Courtesy of State of Tennessee)

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced Friday she will consider granting waivers to let school districts shift to remote instruction in response to outbreaks of COVID and a raft of school closures.

In a letter to superintendents, Schwinn said the seven-day waivers will be for classrooms or schools only, not entire districts. But waivers won’t be required to move individual students online due to virus-related quarantines.

While the “additional flexibility” is needed, Schwinn said the waivers will be “narrowly applied to preserve in-person learning wherever practicable.”

Her announcement came in response to a surge in pediatric COVID cases, a wave of school closures and canceled bus routes, confusion about the state’s rules for providing remote instruction, and inconsistencies in how those rules are being applied.

On Wednesday, after Gov. Bill Lee said he won’t issue an executive order to let entire districts move online, Schwinn said school systems already had the ability to shift schools or classrooms to virtual instruction without dipping into days stockpiled for inclement weather and illness.

But administrators and parents complained about mixed messages from the state, and Schwinn promised to deliver clearer guidance.

Dale Lynch, who leads the state superintendents organization, called the new waiver process “good news” for educators and students.

“This is a critical need, and we’re appreciative of any flexibility that will allow schools to keep operating and students to keep learning,” he said.

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White welcomed the change as well.

“I believe this is a way to address the need for schools to have virtual learning during this time of COVID spiking, but at the same time set parameters on how long virtual learning can take place based on quarantine guidelines,” said White, a Republican from Memphis.

Schwinn’s letter said the waiver process aims for “a nimble approach” to help schools navigate the worsening pandemic, marked by 14,000 pediatric cases of COVID across Tennessee for the week ending Aug. 21. She promised her team will review waiver requests daily and respond “as quickly as possible,” but that she will make the final decision.

According to a copy of the waiver request form, districts must document and demonstrate “a significant impact of COVID-19 quarantine or isolation on school operations, impacting students, teachers and/or staff.” 

If a waiver is granted, all extracurricular activities at the school must also be canceled.

Districts had blanket authority last year to shift to virtual learning when needed. But because spring testing showed students fell dramatically behind academically, a new state rule for 2021-22 requires schools to provide in-person instruction and tap into stockpiled days if they have to close.

This week, as more Tennessee schools closed, educators, parents, and policymakers clamored for expanded remote options to manage the more contagious delta variant. 

Earlier Friday, the legislature’s Democratic leaders called on the governor to provide school leaders with immediate flexibility.

“We have kids being sent home to quarantine without a clear way to stay on top of their schoolwork. That’s unacceptable,” said the Democrats’ letter.

Schwinn told Chalkbeat she expects to consider waivers for the “foreseeable future” and will reassess the need “week by week.”

“I think this is the right approach, and I feel confident districts will be judicious in seeking waivers,” she said. “It continues to be really important that we maximize in-person instruction.”

Below, you can read Schwinn’s letter to superintendents:

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