NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – School reopening plans may be different in each county but every district has one thing in common, a need for resources.  

That’s why the Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn is still seeking additional funding from the federal government. 

“Our first district opened this week and we’ve got a couple more next week so it’s going to be fast and furious and I just want to reiterate we’d appreciate if the federal government can expedite some of their big decisions so we can get those resources for schools,” says Schwinn. 

The Commissioner testified in Washington Thursday in front of a US House of Representatives subcommittee to provide insight on how Tennessee is reopening and balancing complex decisions.

Her testimony coming the same day President Trump somewhat reversed his stance on all schools opening in the fall and instead saying that districts with various hotspots may need to delay reopening for a few weeks.   

News4 asked the Commissioner for her thoughts on that.

Schwinn said, “Yeah, I think it’s reinforcing the decisions that we’ve been making in Tennessee from the beginning, which is every district is so different. So if you’re in Metro Nashville, the decisions that the district needs to make are very different from if you’re in Pickett County or Clay County.

"Knowing that, one we are committed to state funding for all of our districts and two we know those decisions have to be local and it can not be a one size fits all. It’s nice that we’re getting to a nice cohesive vision on that nationally. But that has been our principle from the start. Our superintendents are working so hard to make that a reality for their kids and for their staff.” 

During the pandemic, TDOE created a COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force to look at how students have handle leaving class midsemester and going through the summer. Members were added in June and an initial impact summary was released Thursday.  

One statistic the Tennessee Department of Education highlighting, only 25% of TN District Leaders “agree they are able to adequately support the mental health needs of the students through periods of pandemic related school closure.”

Which would mean 75% do not.  

Commissioner Schwinn said “It’s the reality and it’s so hard to read that. I think as a parent, as a commissioner, as an educator, I think we all see those and we know it’s true. Our kids rely on schools for a ton of services and in a remote setting its so hard to deliver that, and it’s very expensive. And so I think some of this additional federal funding could support greater services to our kids. But 75%, we just know how many kids are out there that are not getting what they need and we’ve got to figure out solutions on how to do that.” 

Prior to the pandemic, the study shows Tennessee ranked 38th in overall youth mental health, 39% overall in child wellbeing, and 48th in health. “I would say the Child Well-Being Task Force is a great start to start that conversation and get those resources. I’m also grateful because we’re getting additional resources from the Governor and legislature to support that work,” says Dr. Schwinn. 

News4 also asked the Commissioner what advice or guidance she gave to school districts as they were deciding their reopening plans.

She says she told them, “If you’re going to open in person, just make sure you have all the safety and health resources necessary to disinfect classrooms in schools, keep staff and students staff, etc and you walk through those procedures. I think that’s incredibly important. And we’re certainly going to be helping with that as a state. And then second I really think prioritizing those younger grades, we know that those little ones have a harder time learning remotely and on the computer so if you’re making decisions about who comes to school and who doesn’t, really try to prioritize the youngest students who parents can not leave them at home and they really can’t learn as well through a computer.” 

Tuesday, the Commissioner will release new state guidance.  

“We’ve been working as an administration team around how to get schools what they need to open up safely so super excited to be able to talk about the things we’re doing for districts, the things we’re doing for schools, and the things we’re doing for teachers. I know in the broader conversation we really have to focus on school staff and what they ask for and need to feel comfortable regardless of whether it’s remote or in person. So we’ll be talking a little bit about those resources, we also have some guidance documents that will be coming out so that when and if a positive COVID case is at a school, families know what to expect around whether the school stays open, what closes down for how long. We need to get those parent facing resources in place so you can expect us to be able to provide and show those. As well as a new website.” 

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