Tennessee schools can request remote learning due to virus

August 28, 2021 GMT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee classrooms and schools facing a surge in COVID-19 cases and quarantines can request a temporary shift to remote instruction if their districts can show a need, the state’s education commissioner said.

In a letter dated Friday, Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Peggy Schwinn said that while she remains committed to in-person instruction, schools and classrooms can now seek a waiver to state Board of Education rules that prevent districts from unilaterally requiring students to implement remote learning.

The letter comes as some school districts in Tennessee were forced to close due to an increase in coronavirus cases among students, faculty and staff. Wilson County Schools said in a news release Friday that schools will be shut down next week “to help slow the current trend of positive cases and quarantines.”

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Wednesday that children now make up 36% of Tennessee’s reported COVID-19 cases. According to researchers from Johns Hopkins, Tennessee ranked sixth in the country this week for new overall cases per capita. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by about 2,200, a jump of 75% over the past two weeks.

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Remote learning waivers apply to individual schools and classrooms, not entire districts, Schwinn noted in her letter. But it is up to the districts to “demonstrate and document COVID-related needs in their school communities that necessitate a temporary shift to remote instruction for classrooms or entire schools,” Schwinn wrote.

“I firmly believe in-person instruction is the best for kids, and there are proven strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Schwinn wrote. “While I want to provide common sense flexibilities to administrators who are making every possible effort to ensure the continuation of in-person academic instruction, my expectation is that waivers will be narrowly applied to preserve in-person learning wherever practicable.”

The threat of COVID-19 in schools has been a topic of concern in Tennessee since the new school year began in August, with a handful of districts issuing mask mandates for students, faculty and staff.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee issued an order Aug. 16 allowing parents to opt-out of school mask mandates for their children. But school districts in Shelby County, the state’s largest, and in Nashville are defying the order and still requiring K-12 students and staff to wear masks in school buildings.

Shelby County’s government is suing Lee in federal court over the order. Another federal lawsuit filed by two Shelby County families alleges Lee’s order violates of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lee’s office said it does not comment on pending lawsuits. A hearing is scheduled Monday on Shelby County government’s lawsuit.

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