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Thousands of Tennessee's high school students may have already received their final grades for the year despite ongoing distance learning after school closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a special-called meeting, the nine-member State Board of Education adopted emergency rules Thursday addressing a range of issues that school systems across the country are dealing with in response to the outbreak. School districts have been grappling with whether to hold graduation ceremonies or high school proms, how to deliver special education services and even if they will reopen at all this school year.

The state board's new rules will mean high school students will be assigned grades based on their performance as of March 20 — the day after Gov. Bill Lee first closed schools through at least March 31 — and will reduce graduation requirements, prevent schools from issuing unexcused absences or reporting truancy as well as giving teachers a pass on overall effectiveness scores this year.

"Many students statewide do not have access to reliable internet service and they also might be taking on additional roles and responsibilities in their families while more students are home, so we did not want to penalize those students," said Sara Morrison, executive director of the state board.

More than a dozen states have already opted not to reopen schools this year, and though Lee hasn't made a decision to close schools for the remainder of the year, nearly two months of instructional time has been disrupted this spring.

The board's emergency grading policy it approved Thursday allows high school students to improve their grades if districts continue to offer distance learning opportunities, but will not allow students' grades to drop since the disruption began. Some organizations and educators are concerned that not all districts have been tracking grades or offering opportunities for improvement since schools closed, though.

In Hamilton County, Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the district has not given teachers official guidance since instruction moved online on March 16 because it was anticipating a state-level decision. He said the district had made it clear, though, the students would not be penalized during this unprecedented time.

"How we've operated is we didn't want students to be adversely impacted by what has transpired," Johnson said. "When we started to look at the fact that there is a month and a half left of school, the reality is there was a good bit of new learning still to be done and the challenge that teachers are struggling with is to be able to deliver that new learning and be able to hold kids to that new learning. ... Across the district, we've had a clear understanding in regards to not allowing this to have a negative impact on student grades."

The board also approved less stringent graduation requirements, including lowering the graduation requirement from 22 credit hours to 20 credit hours for high school seniors. Those 20 credits include four in math, four in English, three in science, two in social studies and seven additional credit hours instead of nine.

End-of-year exams will also not be given. Tennessee lawmakers already dropped TNReady and end-of-course exam requirements during the expedited legislative session in March. The requirements to take the ACT or SAT will also be dropped this year.

The board also approved emergency policy changes that will allow student teachers to be approved for licensure, even if they didn't complete all of their required student teaching hours, and will extend educator licenses about to expire until August 2021.

Some educators have raised concerns that the grade policy could adversely impact students whose districts now won't be required to give them the opportunity to raise their grades, especially if their grades disqualify them for scholarships such as Tennessee's HOPE scholarship.

Mike Krause, board member and executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, said the GPA requirement is only one path to qualify for the HOPE scholarship. Students can also qualify by earning at least a 21 on the ACT.

"The HOPE scholarship looks at the full breadth of a student's academic experience, which is eight semesters of high school. The actions of the board today only impact the last six weeks of that experience," Krause said during the teleconference meeting Thursday. "In the event of the most extreme concern, if a student would somehow not qualify, I would remind everyone that Tennessee financial aid takes many forms and the HOPE scholarship program is only one of those forms."

The policies approved by the state board Thursday will be sent to the state attorney general's office and will go into effect immediately for 180 days.

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

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