Tennessee governor urges schools to close due to COVID-19; education chief asks legislature to suspend student testing

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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As Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee urged school districts across the state to close for at least the rest of the month Monday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn asked the federal government for a waiver to potentially suspend statewide assessments this year.

Schwinn has the authority to request such waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, but also has to ask the Legislature to change state law in order to suspend state testing - that authority lies solely with it.

"Assessment and accountability is a integral part of the Tennessee education system that enables us to learn where students are excelling and how best to meet the needs of all students," Schwinn said in a letter to legislators Monday. "The Department is actively working with Governor Bill Lee and his team to develop a series of waiver options for immediate consideration by the legislature."

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn speaks during a Partnership Network Advisory board meeting at the Hamilton County Department of Education board room on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Annual standardized testing is required for Tennessee students in grade 3-8 and once they enter high school. The state uses the results to help determine how well students are learning and to hold teachers, schools and districts accountable.

The current testing window opens on April 13, with some leeway for districts, but many educators have been calling for the state to shutter schools and suspend testing since districts started closing their doors last week over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. In two weeks, the number of confirmed cases in Tennessee has increased to 52 and they are present in at least 10 of its 95 counties.

The Tennessee Education Association called on Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel testing in a statement Monday.

"The Tennessee Education Association is calling on the Lee administration and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel all TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system for this school year. There will be a significant loss of classroom time for students, and the continuity of instruction critical to building knowledge will be disrupted. Continuing with state high-stakes testing, or the time-consuming portfolio system used in Kindergarten and related arts, will only be setting our students and teachers up to fail," the statement read. "The Tennessee Department of Education and our state legislature must prioritize the health and well-being of students, educators and families."

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, asked Lee to allow the education department to request a one-year waiver to postpone statewide testing as well as protect participation rates or absenteeism metrics from being factored into any school's academic achievement indicators as required by federal law under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"We cannot be certain that our state will not require additional school closings during the entire testing window. However, Tennessee can't administer assessments that are reliable and valid during this academic year. The impact caused by weather and COVID-19 will undeniably affect our accountability system due to school closures or student absences. Districts and educators should also be held harmless," Cepicky said.

Schwinn told the Times Free Press that she and the department are working to ensure every option is on the table for the legislature, and that the department will be able to move quickly after a decision is made.

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"Knowing that responsibility lies in the legislature, our department will continue to focus on being ahead of the game in terms of ensuring we're giving the legislature everything they need to make that critically difficult decision," Schwinn said.

The department is working with its testing vendor to ensure flexibility within the testing window if districts are still required to test, and it will be providing more resources for districts in terms of distancing learning and instruction options while schools are closed in the coming days.

Schwinn complimented the General Assembly and acknowledged Lee and lawmakers' efforts to "prioritize students' health and safety."

"They're taking a bigger-picture look and acknowledge that children should not be penalized because we are in the middle of a pandemic," Schwinn said. "This is really, really hard. I think the conversations certainly are happening at the national level and I think it continually changes. We are having to be nimble and flexible as an agency in a way we haven't had to before."

Lee only officially urged districts to close until March 31 "to further mitigate the spread of this infectious disease." He did say in a statement issued Monday morning that the governor's office will issue further guidance prior to March 31.

And Schwinn acknowledged that the department continues to have conversations about extended closures.

"My responsibility as commissioner is 100% to plan for every possible outcome. We are equally planning for a long-term closure, whether that happens as a state closure or if our districts decide to do that at a local level," Schwinn told the Times Free Press. "We're having very real conversations internally about extended closures and what making up a significant amount of time actually [could] mean, especially for our youngest students."

House Education Chairman Mark White said Monday that the committee will focus on using a caption bill to address questions about school testing, accountability, and graduation requirements amid Gov. Lee's statewide closure.

The committee also will look to waive missed deadlines for Tennessee Promise applications. Other bills, such as the governor's literacy initiative, will be put off in the coming days, White said.

The governor had come under fire by some Hamilton County school leaders since he declared a state of emergency last week but hadn't officially closed schools.

"The fact that Gov. Bill Lee has not joined the 33 other states in closing schools shows a complete lack of leadership. You are putting the lives of teachers, students and parents at risk by doing [so]," said Tucker McClendon, Hamilton County school board member for District 8, in a tweet on Sunday.

After Lee's announcement Monday, Hamilton County Schools announced that it will not reschedule its spring break, slated for April 6 to 10, and schools will remain closed until April 13.

The education department has also applied for federal waivers to allow for local school districts to continue offering two meals a day to children under 18, even while schools are closed.

For information about Hamilton County Schools' local food pick-up sites and other community resources, click here.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.