NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that reopening schools in-person is the “medically sound, preferred option,” but he said it’s dependent on quickly isolating those who are sick and quarantining their close contacts.
He also signed an executive order that permits high schools to proceed with contact sports. That means prep football games will likely begin later next month.
The Republican rolled out his K-12 school reopening plan the same week as the state has been warned by the White House that Tennessee is at a precipice of reaching new levels of infection.
About a dozen Tennessee districts, including Wilson County Schools, have delayed the start of in-person schooling, said state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Lee advised districts to delay in “only the most extreme situations.”
“School reopening is not going to be easy,” Lee said. “There will be a temptation at times to throw in the towel or cut corners, but we have to remember this generation of kids that are desperately needing us to show up on their behalf at this crucial time in this crisis.”
According to Lee’s new school guidelines, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days from the onset of their symptoms or isolate 10 days from the date they were tested.
Those who were within 6 feet of anyone who has COVID-19 for 10 minutes or longer must also quarantine for at least 14 days. The state won’t publicly disclose COVID-19 cases school-by-school, but schools have the option to do so individually, said state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.
On Monday, teachers within Nashville’s Metro Education Association led a caravan past the governor’s mansion with messages that included, “Dead Students Can’t Learn. Dead Teachers Can’t Teach.”
Nashville’s district is staying virtual until at least after Labor Day weekend. One of the teachers’ demands is that schools remain online until Nashville has not had a new COVID-19 case for at least 14 days.
Memphis-centered Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest school district, is letting teachers teach remotely or in classrooms, but all students will learn online at home until further notice.
Wilson County Schools will begin Aug. 17 on a hybrid schedule. Lebanon Special School District will start Aug. 10, also on a hybrid schedule, which means students go to campus two days a week and learn from home the other days.
Lee’s recommendations also noted that families choosing virtual over in-person learning will be provided with free resources to supplement school-based services.
Furthermore, the state is launching a $50 million grant initiative to help school districts with technology purchases.
Personal protection equipment — such as face masks, thermometers and face shields — will also be provided at no cost to the school districts. The state expects to provide nearly 298,000 cloth reusable masks for teachers and 27 million masks for students.
Classroom teachers also will receive a “disinfecting kit,” which will have hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves and masks.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution Tuesday saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans. The group says school buildings should open only in areas where coronavirus infections are low enough and if schools enact certain safety measures.
Tennessee bars teacher strikes, though so do some other states where strikes have occurred in recent years.
Lee noted there are federal guidelines for teacher pay due to COVID-19 exposure quarantine. But he said he expects that “teachers are, for the most part, going to come back to work.”
Lee’s preference for reopening schools in-person aligns with President Donald Trump — who has pressed several weeks for a full reopening of the nation’s schools.
Trump has recently acknowledged that some schools may need to delay a return to in-person instruction, but he’s still asking Congress to withhold future virus relief to schools that fail to reopen.
“A reasonable expectation is there will be positive cases in schools ... what is important is that we have all of the safety and health protocols in place,” Schwinn said.