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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, center, visits a storm-damaged area Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tornadoes went through the area Sunday, April 12. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

This story was updated at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, with more information.

Nearly a million Tennessee students will likely not return to school this year because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee officially called on public schools to remain closed for the rest of the school year during his daily briefing on Wednesday.

"We want to make sure there is flexibility for districts across the state," Lee said. "Students have lost a significant amount of learning time ... Time lost in the classroom also has implications beyond academics.

"The education of our children and their well-being is an investment in the future of Tennessee, and we are committed to ensuring the safety of that investment," he added.

Lee previously recommended schools close through the end of March and then extended that timeline until at least April 24.

Many districts, such as Hamilton County Schools, had already closed schools before Lee's initial recommendations and most districts are attempting to continue instruction through virtual or distance learning efforts.

Tennessee now joins 26 other states that have closed schools for the rest of the academic year out of fear of worsening the global pandemic and as stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses remain in place.

Lee also announced that he has directed Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to head a COVID-19 Child Well Being Task Force to look at the impact that so much time away from school has on students and to help solve the challenges that arise outside of learning time for at-risk and vulnerable student populations during such time.

"I appreciate the governor's recommendation that schools remain closed through the end of the school year to protect the health and safety of all Tennesseans. The coronavirus pandemic is constantly evolving, and we are only starting to see how this pandemic is affecting our children," Schwinn said.

"Children being out of school for such a long time has significant implications for a child's well-being, and this poses a different kind of challenge for all of us, as communities and as a state. There is critical work ahead," she added.

Hamilton County Schools officials anticipated that schools might remain closed past the district's current April 27 date to reopen. School officials are now not only grappling with the coronavirus pandemic but also the aftermath of devastating tornadoes that destroyed at least one school in Hamilton County, among hundreds of other structures.

"As you know, severe storms made their way through Southeast Tennessee. There was significant damage, loss of life and tremendous tragedy in that part of the state," Lee said Wednesday at a news conference. "Our greatest concern is for those facing this tragedy along with the ongoing coronavirus."

In an email sent to parents and students shortly after the Governor's announcement, Hamilton County district leadership said it is "working on enhanced plans for continued learning and the closeout of the school year that would include locker cleanout, graduation ceremonies and academic recognitions."

District leadership also plans to share recommendations for continued learning opportunities over the summer with the school board at it's April 23 meeting. 

Director of Schools Linda Cash, of Bradley County Schools, and Russell Dyer, of Cleveland City Schools, also released a joint statement Wednesday.

"Bradley County and Cleveland City Schools will follow this recommendation. All school-related activities will be canceled or postponed. Districts will communicate through individual schools concerning events, as needed," it said. 

Lee was questioned about why he chose to recommend school closures, rather than require them as many other governors have. Lee said schools will most likely heed his recommendation.

"We know that school districts have decisions to make on their own, but we expect that [schools] will remain closed," Lee said.

The State Board of Education laid the groundwork to keep schools closed this year at an emergency meeting on April 9. The state board approved emergency attendance and grading policies, as well as relaxed high school graduation requirements.

Those policy changes followed the decision by Tennessee lawmakers to suspend the state's annual TNReady standardized testing during a rushed general session in March.

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

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