NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn outlined the state’s plan to temporarily transition some students/teachers to remote learning if they need to quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19.
Monday’s update from the department of education comes as COVID-19 cases among children continue to rise, prompting numerous districts to close just weeks into the new school year.
Schwinn announced Friday that the department would consider waivers to allow for remote learning but not at the district-wide level. She said it’s only a possibility for a classroom or school where districts can show that COVID-19 necessitates the temporary shift to remote.
Schwinn said the waivers consist of specific, individual requests at the classroom or school level, calling it “short term relief” for this current surge.
As commissioner, Schwinn said she does have the authority to allow for such waivers, but she cannot add or replace requirements. “You can take away, but you cannot replace or add,” she explained.
Schwinn said schools and classrooms can submit a waiver – at the classroom or school level – for virtual learning if there are students at the school that need to be individually quarantined. She said that allows for individual students or teachers/staff to quarantine or isolate.
“There needs to be some level of common-sense flexibility for those who need to extend some of those school or classroom closures and move to remote learning as a result of significant spread within those contexts or in the case where the school or classroom is legitimately unable to provide any solution for in person instruction,” she said.
Schwinn said districts can submit a waiver, and the department will review those at specified times throughout the day. Once they are submitted to the district, it can communicate if a waiver is granted.
She said so far, they have gotten one waiver request.
Williamson County Schools superintendent Jason Golden had this to say about the waivers. Fairview Middle School was among the first in our area to close after several students and staff called in sick. They were forced to use one of their designated snow days, because they had no option to transition to virtual learning.
“I was happy to hear of the Department of Education's decision to allow districts to temporarily transition a classroom or school from in-person to remote instruction. This gives us a needed tool we can use to deliver meaningful instruction in situations where a school might have staffing-related issues due to COVID. Personally, I'd like to thank Governor Bill Lee, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, State Senator Jack Johnson and State Representatives Brandon Ogles and Sam Whitson for their help in making this a reality.”
Earlier in the day, teachers’ unions, along with parent and medical groups from across the state, held their own news conference in which they denounced Gov. Bill Lee, urging him to take back his executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of mask mandates, because of the toll on children.
Michele Sheriff, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, joined other educators and parents who called out the state for not giving districts much flexibility to begin with.
"The problem will only get worse as the year goes on, unless our local elected school boards have the freedom and autonomy to make decisions that are best for our school communities," Sheriff said.
Fanny Sung Weiland of SAFE MNPS called out Lee's executive order saying it, "is a threat to our communities." She says as a parent, she wants to do what's best to protect all students from the virus and the best way is a universal mask mandate.
"With no exemptions is what we need until we can get to a point where our kids can get vaccinated and we can reduce the risk of serious illness," Weiland said.
For perspective, Dr. James Hildreth, with Meharry Medical College, said on Friday that, "for most of the pandemic, school aged kids represented 14% of COVID-19 cases in the US. They were at 31% of cases in Tennessee Friday."
Currently, both Metro Nashville Public Schools and Williamson County Schools have mask mandates in place. But Metro is defying Lee’s order and is not allowing for the opt-out option right now while it explores legal options.