HB 7021/SB 7024 would require all school districts in Tennessee serving any grades K-8 to provide in-person instruction for students for a minimum of 70 days in the 2020-2021 school year by June 30, 2021, and the full 180 days in the 2021-2022 school year.
The bill threatens the autonomy and wisdom of local elected education leaders and local health departments who are already carefully analyzing positivity rates for covid-19, related hospitalizations, ICU availability, covid-19 deaths, teacher absences due to quarantines, and the vulnerability of their communities. Local elected leaders are also keenly aware of learning loss issues and are utilizing various methods to improve learning in virtual spaces though more funding – not less – is needed to fully implement their plans. The bill does not provide for peer-reviewed health and education data and is yet another intrusion on the autonomy of local elected leaders especially school and local health officials.
This bill could also potentially further aggravate mental and physical health disparities of Black students, their families, and other communities of color, as well as educators and staff in our districts.
The two districts most likely to be affected by the legislation have already filed lawsuits about being underfunded by the BEP, with the case likely to be heard in October 2021. To threaten to remove all or part of the funding from these districts for not being able safely to re-open schools for in-person education further jeopardizes student learning and the resources needed by teachers and other educators. Each district has worked with partners to provide in-person learning centers for students, such as the YMCA, allowing parents and family members to be at workplaces that require their physical presence.
While this legislation appears to be targeted at Shelby County (Memphis) and Davidson County (Nashville), it could inadvertently impact other school districts that have been forced to some virtual learning due to increased covid-19 deaths and positivity ratings such as Rutherford, Robertson, Sevier, Anderson, and Blount County school districts as well as Maury County and Knox County. (see attached reports/articles) These moves by districts to virtual learning are impossible to predict with the volatile infections still spreading across our state and the lack of adequate vaccines for frontline and essential workers, including teachers, and with no vaccines for students who can infect other family members.
Instead of a requirement for in-person education that threatens funding for all students in a district, this should be a local educational option funded and guided by state grants and state technical services that families can access locally as needed.