The following can be attributed to TEA President Beth Brown: “The governor’s statement that ‘In-person learning is the medically sound, preferred option’ doesn’t align with the rising infection rates we see in every corner of our state. There are few, if any, places in Tennessee where indicators point to a medically sound decision to resume in-person instruction in the coming weeks.
Teachers want to be back in the classroom with our students. We know better than anyone the impact on students when in-person instruction is interrupted. Teachers are also understandably concerned about health risks for students, themselves and their families.
Unlike other states, school reopening and school calendars are a local decision in Tennessee, not a state decision. Local control is something TEA has worked to protect in state law. Making many education decisions, including critical health decisions, is best at the local level.
COVID-19 infection rates will vary from district to district and directors and local school boards will need to use county-level data to see if the virus has been sufficiently contained to even consider in-person instruction. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all decision for the entire state on resuming in-person instruction, but if infection rates remain as high or continue to climb, no system will be able to make that decision safely in the coming weeks or months.
The governor said in-person learning ‘will be made available in a way that protects the health and safety of our students and educators.’ TEA is not convinced the administration’s efforts and the recent uptick in infection rates can meet that health promise.
Tennessee was already in the bottom five for funding per student. The needs of schools were already unmet when COVID-19 hit our state and schools closed. The state has billions of dollars in reserve. TEA calls on Gov. Lee and the General Assembly to make more funds available to school districts to implement best practices for the health, safety and wellbeing of our students and educators.”
Tennessee currently has the fifth highest daily reported new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University.
TEA supports the following initiatives included in the governor’s announcement:
- The state providing no-cost PPE, including face masks, thermometers, and face shields;
- Every classroom to have a full-year classroom disinfecting kit;
- School nurses will be provided with surgical masks, gloves, protective gowns, and face shields; and
- Increases in distance learning grants.
Critical items not found in the governor’s announcement:
- Funding for school nurses for every school – Half of all Tennessee schools do not have a full-time nurse on campus. Emergency funds need to be made available for medical personnel in every school building if and when in-person instruction resumes.
- A moratorium on state testing – The governor recently said state standardized tests will take place this year, but with so much disruption and uncertainty, those tests will not be valid or reliable and must be scrapped. This is an important issue because of the punitive nature of testing in Tennessee. If tests remain scheduled it will apply pressure to make decisions based on testing rather than health.
- Definitive benchmarks for sufficient virus containment to permit in-person instruction from the TN Department of Health – New case rates, active case rates, positive tests, availability of tests and other measures that indicate sufficient virus containment need to be defined by the state and put to scientific review by experts so that educators, families and school boards can make informed choices about in-person instruction. Next week the Tennessee Department of Education will release a decision tree, but it needs to be released immediately so that outside experts can start to review data thresholds within the matrix.
- A plan to ensure sufficient COVID testing to know when infections occur in schools and when to suspend instruction if an outbreak occurs – Without a better testing system with quicker turnaround there is no way to know the health risks to educators, students and their families and how to mitigate them.
- More emergency funding for schools – School districts need additional financial resources from the state and federal government to implement necessary social distancing practices to keep students and educators safe.