Tennessee enlists PBS for home lessons as governor recommends closing schools another month

Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday urged Tennessee schools to remain closed through at least April 24, almost a month longer than previously recommended before the new coronavirus shuttered most businesses and kept many residents under local orders to stay at home.

“We believe it’s important and necessary for us to extend that deadline,” Lee said during an afternoon news conference.

But students should continue to learn while they’re at home, said the governor as he announced a partnership with PBS to begin producing and broadcasting lessons on television.

The lessons will begin on April 6 through local public TV affiliates, and the state education department also is working with radio stations to provide families with even greater access.

“We recognize that not all children have access to the internet at home,” said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Lee’s latest recommendation makes it less likely that schools will reopen this academic year, although he told reporters on Monday that he was not prepared to make that decision yet. 

The governors of Kansas and Virginia have canceled school for the rest of the academic year. And North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered schools to remain closed through May 15. 

All Tennessee schools were shuttered by March 20 after Lee urged a shutdown through March 31. Numerous districts already had decided to extend their closures. In Clarksville-Madison County, for instance, students won’t return to class until at least May 4.

In Memphis, Superintendent Joris Ray responded to the governor’s announcements on Tuesday by saying that Shelby County Schools, which was scheduled to reopen on April 6, is closed indefinitely.

“Our team is meeting daily to assess rapidly changing development and next steps,” Ray said in a statement. “We will continue to seek and adhere to all local, state and national guidance concerning this unprecedented outbreak, and make the best decision on behalf of children in Shelby County.”

With the shutdown, school communities have been scrambling to figure out ways to educate their students at home, even though many do not have access to the internet or are students with disabilities who must be equally served under federal law.

“In terms of special education and children with disabilities, that has been an ongoing national conversation,” Schwinn said.

She cited new federal guidance released over the weekend that said schools should not fully close — or decide against offering online instruction — because of legal concerns about serving students with disabilities. 

 “We want to make sure every single child has access to some level of academic instruction at home, and the accommodations that will be necessary to support those students is something that we’re actively working on,” Schwinn said.

Educators seeking to provide home instruction have also faced challenges because of disparities from district to district — and even within individual school systems. Many have provided access to online materials, and some have distributed printed materials to families without internet access.

A spokeswoman for Tennessee’s largest school system said Shelby County Schools is finalizing a partnership with Memphis TV station WMC to broadcast lessons.