School districts across Middle Tennessee are at a crossroads tonight. Hundreds of new coronavirus cases among students and staff have districts facing difficult choices about how to proceed. It's got some wondering if the state did enough to support districts to begin with.
News 4 spoke exclusively with Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Schwinn says this year has been a challenge, but also she feels good about how things are going. Monday, the Tennessee Education Association sent Governor Lee and Schwinn a letter, voicing their concerns about the state of education and their staff's safety.
"One of the things that I want to make sure folks understand is that we want to do everything possible to support our schools and keep them open. That is our priority. As long as we can do so in a healthy and safe way," Schwinn said. "As it relates to statewide mandates of any kind, we've certainly put out guidance and partnership with the Department of Health, pages and pages of guidance really trying to mirror and mimic what's happening with the CDC and get that out as quickly as possible. We talk to superintendents twice a week to try and help provide that guidance. But certainly, want to make sure that local communities make decisions that are the best fit at that local level. Because we know Memphis, Nashville, Clay County, and Kingsport are very different and should be treated as such."
In terms of cleaning supplies and PPE, Commissioner Schwinn says they are in good shape. Schwinn says the state made an $80 million investment to provide materials for every classroom for the entire year.
"For the first 14 weeks of school, 99.6 percent of our school buildings who offer in-person options have remained open. We have seen, up until we started to see the COVID increases happen and community spread, we have seen most of our students and our staff be able to go to school and remain in school safely. But most importantly--is balancing that health and safety with high-quality academic opportunities for kids, and that is a testament to the hard work of our teachers, principals, superintendents, and staff," Commissioner Schwinn told News 4.
Commissioner Schwinn says her department is closely monitoring the shortages in school staff and finding substitutes for teachers or staff that have to quarantine. Commissioner Schwinn says that will likely impact them for the next several weeks going into the holidays.
News 4 also asked Commissioner Schwinn about the number of schools that are changing from in-person learning to virtual. We also wanted to know if the Department will make a statewide plan across the board for all districts.
"We want to have local districts be able to make local community-driven decisions, in conjunctions with families, schools, etc. And we also organize in terms of 8 regions across the state. So our regional sources come together, and those superintendents and a member of our staff meet every week. They're able to talk about what regional needs are," Commissioner Schwinn said.
I spoke with Beth Brown with the TN Education Association. She says they are still waiting on a response to their letter they sent to Governor Lee and the TN Department of Education. One of the things they want is a mask mandate for all school staff and students. @WSMV pic.twitter.com/eNmA9KSVpW— Caresse Jackman (@CaresseJ) November 20, 2020
When I asked Beth Brown how are teachers and staff are feeling right now..."They're end of the year teacher tired, in October." She says teachers and staff are exhausted--dealing with the back and forth of in person/virtual learning. @WSMV pic.twitter.com/JqMv5QMWc8— Caresse Jackman (@CaresseJ) November 20, 2020
We spoke with TEA President Beth Brown after our exclusive interview with Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Brown says educators want to be in school with students...but ONLY if it's safe. @WSMV. Watch more of her interview, tonight at 10 and on https://t.co/miKW7777Sp pic.twitter.com/rUleqjLAo8— Caresse Jackman (@CaresseJ) November 20, 2020