Though neighboring states, Georgia and Alabama, both have canceled school for the rest of the year, Tennessee students still aren't sure if they'll go back to school this spring.
On March 24, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called for the state's schools to remain closed until at least April 24, but he has yet to extend that deadline, even after he issued a stay-at-home order through April 14 for the entire state on Thursday.
The latest projections indicate the COVID-19 surge will hit Tennessee between April 19-21, and at a news conference on Thursday Lee acknowledged that he was still deciding when or if schools should reopen this year.
"I've said before that we have a date for the 24th for tools to be open, we are going to watch closely and make decisions based on what we see in this surge and what we think this situation is going to be going forward," Lee said in response to a question from a reporter. "We are going to be making a decision there pretty soon."
Most states have already closed schools for an extended period of time due to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation. With most academic years ending in mid-May to early June, at least a dozen states across the country as of Friday have decided to close schools for the remainder of the year — including Georgia and Alabama.
After Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's announcement on March 26 that schools would remain closed this year, Richard Woods, the state school superintendent, said it was a "real loss" for teachers, students and especially graduating high school seniors.
"It is also the wisest decision, given what we know about COVID-19 and how it is affecting our state. I fully support the Governor's decision. I deeply appreciate his deliberate decision-making during these uncertain times, as well as the partnership he's had with me, the Georgia Department of Education, and superintendents across the state during this unprecedented crisis," Woods said in a statement.
STATES WHERE SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED FOR REST OF THE YEAR
Source: Education Week, state data
Woods added that school meals will still be offered, as well as opportunities for distance learning.
Most Tennessee districts have already moved instruction online or are providing distance learning opportunities — such as take-home packets and assignments — for students. Some Tennessee districts have extended school closures into May already, and Hamilton County public schools are closed until April 27.
Hamilton County Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the district is preparing for multiple possibilities, including students not returning to school at the end of April, and how the pandemic could affect schools returning in August.
"For every educator, every student there is a desire to get back to normalcy. We want to get back to normalcy but we are dealing with a pandemic and a serious situation," Johnson said. "We are preparing for students to return on the 27th but we're also having conversations about what does this look like for the remainder of the year and, frankly, what will it look like when we come back in August."
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement that it is the department's hope to "resume school at the earliest possible date."
"This is an unprecedented time for our country and state and the department has been working closely with the Governor's office and other state and federal agencies to ensure we provide school districts with much needed supports," Schwinn said in a statement Friday. "It is everyone's hope to resume school at the earliest possible date, when it is both safe to do so and when we can be sure of the health of our children, staff, and communities. Under Governor Lee's leadership, the department will continue to monitor the evolving situation and act in the best interest of children."
The Tennessee State Board of Education is also holding an emergency meeting next week "to enact emergency rules to address some of the K-12 education issues that have arisen as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak," according to board spokeswoman Elizabeth Tullos.
Some topics to be considered include high school graduation requirements, teacher preparation such as requirements for those now finishing up teaching degrees and grades. Tennessee lawmakers have already voted to suspend annual TNReady standardized testing this year.
As far as school closures, the decision to reopen schools is outside of the scope of the state board's authority, Tullos said in an email.
As a district leader, Johnson said he anticipates hearing more from the state after the state board meets to discuss options.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
Free meals still available to students in Hamilton County during spring break despite coronavirus outbreak