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In this July 1, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions during a news conference in Nashville, Tenn. As Tennessee has fueled one of the nation's worst COVID-19 surges for weeks, Gov. Bill Lee's approach hasn't strayed much from how he and several fellow Republican governors battling similar spikes have long approached the virus. He's resisted restricting public behavior and focused on keeping businesses open. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's largest school districts are facing calls from Gov. Bill Lee to offer in-person learning, but Nashville and Memphis education officials on Friday declined to commit to a time frame.

Lee, a Republican, has sharpened his criticism of schools that have refused to offer in-person teaching because of COVID-19 safety concerns, declaring earlier this month that those districts were not using science to make such decisions.

According to the governor's office, Lee spoke with the top school officials in Nashville and Shelby County — which encompasses Memphis — this week not only to stress the importance of offering in-person instruction again, but also to state that the districts should do so by Feb. 15. Lee has zeroed in on the two school districts — the state's more left-leaning urban centers with notably higher Black and brown communities — as they have largely remained virtual during the pandemic.

"Consequences or anything of that nature was not discussed — simply support and wanting to see parents have that choice as soon as possible," Laine Arnold, Lee's spokesperson, said in an email on Friday.

But Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray announced on Friday that the district had scrapped its plan to return to in-person learning on Feb. 8 because of a spike in coronavirus cases.

"Right now, we are unable to provide a new target date for returning to buildings as we base our local decisions on the health and safety of all students and educators," Ray said in a statement, adding that the number of coronavirus cases in Shelby County had doubled over a 24-hour period just this week.

Ray also said that he asked Lee to prioritize education in the state's "vaccination lines" but claimed that the governor declined to do so.

However, Lee's Department of Health has moved teachers into a higher priority category in its COVID-19 vaccination plan. This has since resulted in nearly 40 counties, in mostly rural areas, currently allowing educators to be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle announced that the district would reveal its reopening plan next week.

In a statement, Battle said the schools' COVID-19 risk score had dropped to its lowest level since it was introduced in November. If the risk score remains low, Battle said, the district will release details about phasing students back into school buildings.

For months, the state's top education officials have raised alarms that students are experiencing serious adverse learning effects from remote learning that could plague them for years. Lee's administration in particular has focused on Tennessee's dismal third-grade reading scores, warning that student learning has suffered.

Republican legislative leaders had floated a proposal that that would let the Tennessee education commissioner withhold state funding if a school district can't provide at least 70 days of in-person schooling during the 2020-2021 school year.

The proposal was ultimately abandoned, but the threat has elevated the political pressure on when and how schools should return to in-person learning. Republican legislative leaders have indicated that the bill will be back on the table during the regular legislative session, which picks up Feb. 8.

 

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