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Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn speaks with the media at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Thursday, March 7, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tennessee school districts affected by rising COVID-19 outbreaks will be able to move schools and classrooms to remote learning by submitting waiver applications to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn — including districts that made the shift prior to Schwinn's letter announcing the waivers on Friday.

Schwinn sent a letter to school district leaders Friday outlining the process after several districts had already announced closures or shifts to remote learning for this week, at both the school and district-wide levels.

She told reporters at a virtual news conference Monday that those districts will be able to request waivers for this week, but only if they are conducting remote instruction.

"If, for example, the district closed schools for the week and today they had a school building closure or used a stockpile day [set aside for snow days or other emergencies] and no instruction was provided, a waiver would not be allowed for that because it's not an instructional day," Schwinn said.

School systems will have to fill out waiver applications outlining how COVID-19 has affected students and staff, according to the letter, and the department will review the applications at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. CDT each day.

Before the letter went out, districts including Cleveland City Schools closed Thursday and Friday last week due to staffing shortages, using two stockpile days, and remote learning did not take place, according to a message on the district's website.

On Friday, before the waiver announcement, Hamilton County Schools announced five schools would conduct remote learning for part or all of this week. District spokesperson Cody Patterson did not respond to inquiries about the waiver status for the district.

The district reported 567 active student cases on Monday, up from 341 on Aug. 24. The district reported 79 staff cases, up from 51 on Aug. 24.

Sequatchie County Schools also announced Friday that all district schools will be closed this week due to rising cases and that students will not be responsible for make-up work when they return on Sept. 7.

In Bledsoe County, Pikeville Elementary School and Bledsoe County High School will operate remotely for students on Tuesday pending state department of education approval, according to a message dated Sunday from Director of Bledsoe County Schools James Ellis and posted on the district's website. Teachers will continue to report to school in person, and students and staff at the district's three other schools will continue with in-person learning, according to the letter.

Polk County Schools announced on social media Sunday that all schools will close this week due to staffing shortages and absences and that the district will use stockpile days since the entire system cannot move to remote learning.

Before Schwinn's letter, school districts did not have a clear method to move to remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks in classrooms, schools or districtwide.

In its statement Friday, Hamilton County Schools said that shifting five schools to remote learning was based on the district's interpretation of state board of education policies. Similarly, Cleveland City Schools' statement noted that the state no longer allows districts to move to remote or hybrid learning.

Last year, continuous learning plans were used to move entire school systems to remote or hybrid learning. Schwinn said Monday the department of education maintained its stance that districts will not be allowed to use such plans in the near future and that the state prioritizes in-person learning as much as possible.

On Monday, Schwinn was the recipient of a letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, along with school officials from four other states. The department launched an investigation into the Tennessee Department of Education for its mask policy that allows families to opt students out of wearing masks at school. The policy may prevent students with disabilities and students with underlying medical conditions — who are at a higher risk for becoming infected with COVID-19 — from attending school face-to-face.

"In light of these circumstances, [the Office for Civil Rights] is concerned that Tennessee's policy requiring public schools and school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates may be preventing schools in Tennessee from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19," reads the letter in part.

The policy in question comes from an executive order signed by Gov. Bill Lee on Aug. 16 that allows parental opt-outs for any mask requirements imposed by local school districts.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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