Governor wants Tennessee school buildings closed for rest of academic year

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday that Tennessee school buildings should remain closed for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He also announced plans to create a task force led by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to make sure students are safe and fed during the public health crisis.

“Time lost in the classroom has implications beyond academics; those implications are often the well-being of children,” Lee said of vulnerable students who struggle outside of a structured classroom environment.

Lee’s recommendation to close schools means the state’s nearly 1 million public school students are expected to finish their classes this spring using distance learning methods that are mostly online, on paper, or on public radio and television.

The announcement was expected as coronavirus cases and deaths in Tennessee continue to increase and relatively few days are left in the academic year anyway. Each district sets its own academic calendar in Tennessee, and most end classes in mid- to late May. 

Other governors have already taken similar steps. On Tuesday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves extended his closure order for the rest of the school year. He also urged some school systems to consider offering summer classes to help students catch up.

All public school campuses in Tennessee have been shuttered since March 20 at the governor’s urging, and districts have scrambled to launch remote learning programs and deliver meals for students from low-income families.

Last week, the State Board of Education passed emergency rules covering the likelihood that in-person classes would not resume this spring and guiding districts on issues such as calculating grades and graduating high school seniors. Under those rules, schools can’t issue unexcused absences or report students as truant for failing to participate in remote learning programs. Most districts are not grading students’ assignments, either.

“I kind of expected this, but I feel bad for the kids who really need to be in school and don’t have parents pushing them to learn at home,” said Poppy Underwood, a math teacher at White Station High School in Memphis. “Even if we reopened schools in May, I don’t think many students would come back. This is the right call.”

Before the governor’s announcement, schools were to remain closed through at least April 24. But on Monday, Lee extended his statewide stay-at-home order through the remainder of April.

Education leaders praised the governor’s decision to put the question to rest.

“Educators are as eager as parents for school to resume, but every decision on how and when to reopen classrooms must consider health, safety and well-being first,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization.

“This allows us to focus now on what remote education should look like for the rest of the school year and then to plan for the new school year,” said Dale Lynch, on behalf of the state’s superintendents.

While Lee’s directive was not an official order, the governor said he expects school systems to comply.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said the state’s largest district will follow the recommendation. “We will be sharing more guidance and expectations about long-term closure in the coming days,” the spokeswoman said.

Schwinn said the COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force will work with local nonprofit agencies, churches, and other organizations to check on students who are most at risk to make sure they are safe and receiving meals.

“Children being out of school for such a long time has significant implications for a child’s wellbeing, and this poses a different kind of challenge for all of us,” she said.