Chattanooga Times Free Press
Calls grow for Tennessee’s leaders to do more to control spread in schools
Educators, community leaders and leading advocacy organizations are calling on the Tennessee Department of Education to do more to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on student health and learning after a chaotic first month of school in Tennessee.
In an open letter sent to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Thursday, members of the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education called for more flexibility for school districts, especially around remote learning, additional guidance from the state and stronger support for the best public health practices inside schools.
“Our state’s families and educators are counting on strong, strategic leadership, and we believe that our state can and must do more to protect them and provide consistent instruction during this challenging time,” the group said.
As COVID-19 cases among school-age children have skyrocketed, more than two dozen school districts have already had to close this year because of rising case numbers, quarantines and staff shortages.
But the state offers few options for districts that have to close school doors. Currently, schools can apply for a waiver from the state education department to close individual schools and pivot to remote learning for up to seven days, but only if a significant percentage of students and staff are already affected, leaving little room for preventive measures, some district leaders say.
“Far too many students and teachers across the state are missing school this fall, with more than 25 districts having closed due to the rising case numbers. Given the current state-mandated limits on virtual learning, when entire school districts close without additional options for learning, they are forced to halt instruction entirely for all students, including the most vulnerable,” the letter reads.
Members of the alliance, which is made up of more than 60 education advocacy groups statewide, also are asking the department to “heed the expertise of healthcare professionals” including recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
These recommendations include encouraging vaccines for Tennesseans ages 12 and up, universal masking inside schools, providing accessible testing for COVID-19, contact tracing and quarantining and allowing for proper ventilation and social distancing inside schools.
Members of the alliance that signed the letter include The Education Trust — Tennessee, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Nashville Public Education Foundation, the Memphis Education Fund and the NAACP, among others.
Not all of the group’s demands fall within the education department’s purview though, spokesperson Brian Blackley said in an email.