Last week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the State of Tennessee’s recommendations to reopen schools for the 2020-2021 school year.
“Providing parents a choice in their children’s education is incredibly important,” Lee said. “In-person learning is the medically sound, preferred option. Our state is doing everything we can to work with local school districts and ensure that in-person learning is made available in a way that protects the health and safety of our students and educators, and this plan helps us accomplish that goal.”
Lee released a detailed list of recommendations from the Department of Health and the Department of Education last Tuesday designed to give school systems around the state a roadmap for welcoming students back to campus in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic. However, the state is also committed to providing resources for parents and students engaged in virtual learning.
Last Tuesday, Johnson City Schools announced its intention of starting the school year remotely, joining Washington County Schools and University School as cases of COVID-19 continue to mount. All students in the Johnson City system will start school learning virtually on Aug. 10 and continue through the first three weeks of the school year before the situation is reassessed on Aug. 31.
“There is no perfect solution for how to provide in-person instruction while also providing a 100 percent guarantee of safety for all students and staff members given the current community COVID-19 cases,” said Steve Barnett, Johnson City’s Superintendent of Schools. “We are choosing to start remotely as a precautionary measure. Our priority remains to open schools for in-person learning when it is safe. All schools are in the process of organizing instructional materials and devices for deployment to students.”
Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. Lisa Piercey said the state’s urgency to get school-aged kids back into school buildings is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, and National Academies of Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering.
“The Department of Health has worked with Department of Education to establish a protocol to keep school buildings open safely and cause minimal disruption when positive cases occur,” Piercey said.
Additionally, Lee charged Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn with convening a 38-member COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force, which uncovered quite a bit of data advocating for the return of in-person learning despite the spread of COVID-19. The group’s findings identified mental health care and food assistance as two main services families depend on schools to provide.
“Tennessee is prioritizing health and safety of our school communities,” Schwinn said. “Ensuring schools, teachers, families, and students have the critical resources and supports they need to start the new school year strong is paramount, and I am thankful to Governor Lee for continuing to support education in Tennessee as schools reopen across the state.”
The main health recommendations from the state were for school systems to establish a 10-day sick window for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and a 14-day quarantine for anyone who has been within 6 feet of a person who has COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes. The state also identified contact tracing as a crucial tool for keeping schools open and recommended a texting platform as an efficient way to handle the task of informing families of students who came in contact of an infected person.
As part of the reopening plan, the state committed to assisting parents, teachers and school districts. Parents will have access to free learning resources, and the state has committed to provide every classroom teacher with a full-year classroom disinfecting kit to ensure teachers don’t have to pay for these supplies out of pocket.
At the district level, the state announced a $50 million grant initiative will help with the direct purchase of instructional devices such as laptops or tablets to facilitate remote learning. The state is also providing districts with a decision tree, which will include recommendations on how to keep schools open safely when a case or cases of COVID-19 is confirmed among students or staff.
Additionally, an $11-million grant program will help bolster programming at the district level. For more information on the state’s recommendations, visit tn.gov/governor/covid-19.