NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – The state’s top education official wants students to keep participating in in-person learning but explained how some schools could move to remote learning.

The Tennessee Education Department Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn made it clear that the "priority" in the state is getting students learning in the classroom and that " that will not change." 

"We want as many students in person as possible. We saw how significant of a decline that resulted from the disruptions of COVID last year,” Schwinn said during a virtual meeting with the media on Monday. "We also want to ensure everyone is safe.”

Her news conference comes after department said it might consider allowing remote learning again.

"To be clear if a student is quarantined a classroom is quarantined or school is quarantined, it is the expectation that those children are receiving the same number of instructional hours, as they otherwise would have,” Schwinn said. "It's an instructional day and it is remote learning. It is not a day off, it is not a closure, it is moving to remote teaching and learning

Several districts have closed their schools "because of staffing related to COVID-19." Locally, Coffee County, Warren County and Wilson County schools remain closed all week. Schwinn announced for schools closed this week, her department will "entertain and review waiver requests."

"However, those waivers will be granted if remote instruction took place," Schwinn said. "For example, if the district closes schools for the week and today they had a school building closure or used a stockpile day and no instruction was provided, a waiver will not be allowed for that because it's not an instructional day."

Schwinn said districts had all weekend and until 3 p.m. on Monday to submit waivers.

"If they want to do that, as soon as the waiver is granted, they’ll be able to transition from using a stockpile day to a remote day effective as soon as that waiver is granted," Schwinn said.

For parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their students to school because of underlying health issues or parent preference, Schwinn said there are number of virtual schools available.

"Every district had the opportunity to request for virtual school last spring and summer, a number of districts elected to do so. Many districts did not," Schwinn said. "But parents are still able to enroll their children in virtual schools if they want to have a completely remote or virtual experience this school year or semester."

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced on Monday that it would be opening an investigation into five states, including Tennessee. The investigation will look into whether "statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education."

There are hundreds of seats available for virtual schools they did not fill up. Schwinn said there wasn’t a big uptick in family choosing that option, but it's still a choice for families.

Wilson County Schools are closed this week because of a surge of COVID cases. Bart Barker, the spokesman for Wilson County Schools, said the waiver request is welcome relief during these times.

“Where we are in this phase of this is still having discussions and talking about the information that was sent down and what that looks like as we consider incorporating that into our district moving forward beyond our shutdown period that we are in right now,” Barker said.

News4 asked what it would take to implement virtual learning per classroom or school if one of the system’s schools applied for a waiver.

“There’s a lot of intricate details that go into remote learning from a full district-wide capacity or even a partial capacity,” Barker said. “That’s what our district teams are doing right now to see; to do scenarios or it was a particular school or a particular grade bandwidth of school. If it was a wing at a middle or high school.”

Barker said the district just came off its highest five-day average last week when it comes to COVID-19 cases. He said right now the focus is getting the district healthy.

“That’s why this week is being taken for a grand total of 10 days. It gives a lengthy amount of time for our district to keep the focal point on getting healthy,” said Barker. “It can slow that unfortunate trend down that we were facing going into this past weekend, which was not good on our cases and quarantine count. Hopefully this time will allow for everyone to get healthier and to allow us to return in a healthier way after Labor Day.”

Barker said Wilson County Schools district leaders are having lots of discussions about the waiver option. Before the closure this week and the information from the state about the waivers, the school district had a scheduled work session in place for Wednesday evening.

Barker said families can listen to the work session and find out what the Department of Education waiver requests will mean for the district moving forward. Schwinn said waivers will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“There will be a point where if it is multiple consecutive waivers, we’re going to want to work with that school as well as the local health department to figure out whether all mitigation strategies are in place to the extent possible,” Schwinn said.

The Department of Education said it has received one waiver request.

News 4 also reached out to Rutherford County Schools about the Department of Education waiver.  

 

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