Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he will issue Executive Order No. 55 to allow for contact sports to resume in schools, if they follow the requirements of TSSAA.
Non-TSSAA schools must follow equivalent guidelines, and non-school-sponsored athletics should follow the Tennessee Pledge guidelines. An update to the Pledge guidelines will be forthcoming.
Lee and members of his administration spoke at a press conference Tuesday about steps the state is taking to help school districts reopen classes, which they said is their preference for children’s wellbeing.
Following is a summary of their press conference. A list of school guidance suggestions follows that:
Dr. Lisa Piercey, health commissioner:
There will be cases in schools. We are trying to have a detailed plan to mitigate the spread and minimize the disruption.
We are 43 percent lower in immunizations than last year. Part of that is due to decreased movement. It is safe to go to the doctor and health department.
Penny Schwinn, education commissioner:
We are officially in back-to-school season.
This year will look different. There are critical decisions to be made. We are supporting districts.
Our top priorities will continue to having safe and healthy schools.
Guidance posted on our website has guidance for school closures. Schools are opening now: last week was the first.
Guidance: The child wellbeing task force has met on what it meant to have schools closed in the spring. Educators saw 27 percent drop in reports of suspected child abuse. 75 percent of students nationally get mental health support at school.
Parents are looking to us for guidance. We have an early literacy resource. We have the PBS TV programs.
We advocated for student needs. The governor gave out $50 million given in technology grants for devices to close the digital divide.
We will continue the school meal finder for parents to find food.
80,000 teacher kits will be given: a year’s supply of cleaning and PPE supplies.
We are the only state giving a teacher-driven kit for the entire year.
School nurses will receive PPE gear.
Q: Alcoa Middle School situation: Have any additional people tested positive and was it a student or employee? How many schools said they would open in person on time, etc.?
Schwinn: They had a case. They followed the protocol and notified people. There will be positive cases in schools. What is important is we have safety protocols. We are reviewing continuous learning plans which are required. 145 of 147 districts have plans to open in person. Some have delayed one or two weeks.
Question on parents having the option of remote learning. What about teachers who are afraid for their health?
Lee: We made an effort to give teachers everything they need to be safe. Penny mentioned the PPE and safety guidelines. Our expectations are those teachers will return. For those with exposure or get quarantined, there are federal guidelines.
Follow-up: It sounds like you cannot ensure the safety of teachers.
Lee: We can provide safety equipment for teachers. Can we guarantee a teacher may not test positive? We cannot guarantee that. We also do not know where cases come from.
Follow-up on contact sports: They are struggling to go back. What do you see?
Lee: We will see what happens. If the TSSAA guidelines are followed, we expect those sports to move forward.
Q: Earlier today, a Nashville doctor urged you to do a statewide mask mandate. He mentioned your religion.
Lee: We are making decisions we believe will be most effective in mitigating the spread: messaging on wearing mask, trusting local mayors to make decisions. My belief is wearing a mask is a safe way to keep our economy open.
Q: You said you didn’t want to leave students to fend for themselves. In Memphis and Nashville, they have the most students who struggle. Would you consider opening mental health services? Can you target this for students who are not in classes?
Lee: While districts are given the responsibility to make decisions, our belief is that in person learning is best for students. We hope those districts will move toward in person learning when it is appropriate.
Q to Schwinn on cohorts.
Schwinn: The department has given guidance of how it would look. An elementary school may have a large group that stays together.
Q on COVID being under control before opening schools.
Lee: The decision is based on the health and safety of children. We outlined the risk of students not being in school. We outlined the negative impacts on kids. We weighed our approach with the need to safely put kids back in the classroom.
Follow-up: The CDC said if a child or teacher who is infected in a class, that the whole class should be tested. Why not put this in your plan?
Lee: One challenge is testing turn-around time. We spoke to Dr. Deborah Birx about that yesterday.
Q: When will you know if this is working? At what point do you say this is not working?
Lee: That is a bit hypothetical. Since March, we have not known what is coming and we have made decisions on data. That is how we will make decisions moving forward.
Follow-up: Why not issue a statewide mask mandate? The attorney general said it is legal.
Lee: I believe that local…anything done closest to the people is most effective. I think people have trust in their local officials.
Follow-up: Will Health Department release data on school by school basis on cases and deaths?
Piercey: That is a good question. I will remind you of the issue with nursing homes. Until HHS gave us clearance, we didn’t do it. Schools can disclose it. I think it is implausible it will be a secret if any case comes in. The department will not release that list.
Q: Will there be guidelines on when to open or close schools?
Piercey: In class learning is the best and should be the starting point and you should work back from that. We gave specific guidance on how to handle cases. We don’t want to put anyone at risk but if an outbreak is contained to one class…
Follow-up: Will districts be expected to follow your guidelines and not theirs if they already have them?
Piercey: I will defer to the commissioner on local autonomy.
Schwinn: The department of Health and Education put out guidelines to help districts. They will start with that and think about what is good for the local level. Speaking about reopening, some districts, those younger students and literacy rates and vulnerable populations like those who do not speak English or those who are hungry or abused.
Q for governor: We saw mass testing at nursing homes and prisons. Will there be access at schools?
Lee: We provide free testing to anyone. The challenge is turn-around. There are improvements.
Q for Piercey on 300 people falsely being told they were positive. Was the department responsible?
Piercey: There are two scripts a tracer uses when they call. One is for case investigation: those who test positive. The other is for contact monitoring. 300 were called with the wrong script and were asked questions as if they were a case; no one got wrong lab results. That was recognized in less than 24 hours.
Is that error on the state?
I don’t know where the error was, but I am the commissioner, so I take responsibility.
Q: Are you aware of false results?
Q for Schwinn: On the 80,000 kits, when will it happen and will it be prioritized for teachers who will teach in person?
Schwinn: TEMA will distribute. Priority is based on reopening dates.
Follow-up: What is the department doing to get guidelines out quickly?
Schwinn: We talk to districts multiple times a week.
Q: A child gets sick and goes home. What is needed for them getting back, and will they receive teaching help at home?
Piercey: When you test positive, you go into isolation time of 10 days. It is 14 days for quarantine when you are in contact with a case. There is not a need to test at the end of either; CDC last week said if you are asymptomatic do not need to be retested for 3 months. I would think they could do remote learning.
Schwinn: Every district has the remote learning plan.
Q to Piercey: Do we have enough tests and are they distributed properly? People are in line and are they running out of tests? Do you track the average turn-around time for the various labs and what is that average and is it good or bad?
Piercey: Distinguish between test kits and lab supplies. We are not seeing issues with test kits and collections or testing sites. You can get a test easily with 1.4 million tests done. Now, the supply issues are on the lab side, affecting turn-around time. Labs trouble getting reagents to run tests and now trouble finding certain supplies like pipettes. For those reasons, we are having longer turn-around times. I didn’t look today, but was shy of 3 days. That does not mean 2.8 days get back: transportation time and reporting time. Some labs are longer. Some large national labs can be 5 to 7 days.
Details on the state’s school plan follow:
“Leading health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, and National Academies of Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering, have all stressed the importance of in-person learning for students,” Piercey said in a press release. “The Department of Health has worked with Department of Education to establish a protocol to keep school buildings open safely and cause minimal disruption when positive cases occur.”
The recommendations from the Department of Health and the Department of Education are below:
When to Test & Quarantine
10-Day Sick Window
Anyone testing positive for COVID-19 must isolate themselves at home for 10 days from the onset of their symptoms or 10 days from the date their test was done if they never developed symptoms. Fever must be gone and they must be feeling better for at least 24 hours.
Anyone who has been within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for 10 minutes or more must quarantine themselves at home for 14 days from the last time they were with that person. These time periods do not change with a doctor’s note or with a negative test.
Keeping schools open for in-person instruction depends upon our ability to quickly isolate people who are sick and quarantine their close contacts.
If a child is ill, parents should not send them to school where they could infect others. If a child is diagnosed with COVID-19, parents are asked to assist the Department of Health by contacting the child’s close contacts so those individuals can quarantine at home.
If a parent is notified that their child has been in close contact of someone with COVID-19, please follow the guidelines and quarantine them at home for 14 days.
Schools may be able to assist with notifying families of the need to quarantine through text messaging services. If parents receive a message from their child’s school informing you that your child needs to stay at home for 14 days, please follow those instructions.
School entry immunizations have not changed. Even if students are learning online, they still need the required immunizations to register for school. COVID-19 has had a significant impact on immunization rates: 43 percent fewer immunizations were reported during April 2020 compared to April 2019.
It is critical that children receive regular check-ups and have their immunizations up to date. Immunizations mitigate outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as the measles and whooping cough.
Supporting Child Wellbeing
In response to the pandemic’s long-term effects on Tennessee’s school districts and students, Gov. Lee charged Commissioner Schwinn with convening the 38-member COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force. The findings of the taskforce’s Initial COVID-19 Impact Summary include:
Reports of suspected child abuse dropped by 27% during peak stay-at-home orders in Tennessee;
75 percent of students nationally receive mental health care in a school setting;
In 2019, approx. 45,000 school-aged children were served for mental health through the community-based system;
Approximately half of districts were able to address or check on wellness and safety of students during spring closures;
Nearly 14 million students across the country go hungry when school is not in session, so resumption of in-person learning is critical to ensure access to nutrition.
Whether it be in-person or virtual, we want parents to have a choice in their child’s education. For those who choose the virtual option, the State will provide free resources to supplement their district’s school-based services. The resources include:
Early Literacy Resource: A free resource for students pre-K through 2nd grade to build foundational skills and support early literacy;
PBS Learning Series: Complete lessons for 1st- 9th grade students in both math and ELA taught by Tennessee teachers;
STE(A)M Resource Hub: Three challenges per week to spark creative thinking, design, and career exploration from the home;
Start of the Year Checkpoint: A free and optional assessment to measure student performance at the beginning of the year and help inform educators about student readiness for the year ahead;
Advocating for Students
Technology and Continuity of Operations
Devices and connectivity will be critical resources to ensure quality remote learning this school year. The $50 million grant initiative to support district technology purchases is now available and is intended to increase student access to one-to-one instructional devices such as laptops or tablets.
The Department of Education is supporting districts, schools and teachers through additional wifi and technology supports, including 250,000 devices.
Meal Supports & Food Accessibility
The school meal finder will continue to be provided to ensure parents know where to go for school meal programs should a school building be closed.
Financial assistance is available for families who qualify for free or reduced school lunches, through the Department of Human Services’ Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program.
Safety Equipment for Teachers
The State is providing no-cost PPE, including face masks for any school stakeholder who wants or needs one, thermometers for every school, and face shields for every staff member. This includes 298,000 cloth reusable masks for teachers, and 27 million disposable masks for students distributed by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
Every classroom teacher will have a full-year classroom disinfecting kit to use so no teacher pays for these materials out of their own pockets. The kits include hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves and masks.
School nurses will be provided with surgical masks, gloves, protective gowns, and face shields.
Professional Development Resources
The Department of Education will offer free professional development classes on remote teaching that will cover relationship-building, using instructional materials, and system set-up. These resources have extended through August 31st.
Principals and assistant principals will have access to remote education professional development through UT-Knoxville, and teachers have access through Trevecca Nazarene University.
The Department also announced the Special Education Additional Endorsement Grant, which will enable every public school district to provide at least one teacher with a special education endorsement (SPED) for free. Eight SPED Additional Endorsement Grants, totaling $1 million, have been awarded to Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) to deliver courses in a virtual environment.
The Department of Education will provide district leaders with a decision-tree that includes recommendations on how to keep school buildings open safely when a case or cases are confirmed among students or staff, developed in collaboration with the Department of Health and School & District Action Teams.
Recruiting Additional Personnel
A job board for educators and substitute teachers has been created so districts can use remote resources to ensure they are staffed for the start of the year and can fill vacancies more quickly. More than 1,000 educators have already utilized the job board, showing the strong teaching workforce present in Tennessee.
Ensuring districts have the resources they need to implement remote learning with fidelity is paramount. The $11 million grant program to bolster programmatic supports and implementation will be released to districts soon.
The Department of Education is establishing a criteria list for potential district partners to ensure supports are well-versed in the academic programming needs to successfully implement district Continuous Learning Plans (CLPs).
As districts finalize their CLPs and build team capacity to effectively implement them, this grant program will provide funding for supports such as:
Training educators on effective instructional practices in virtual classroom environments;
Integrating the use of high-quality instructional materials in virtual instruction;
Supporting operational aspects of virtual instruction, including IT support for students, families, and staff.