Lee Aug. 18

Tennessee will hold school districts harmless when it comes to enrollment numbers for funding purposes, and people who receive unemployment benefits soon will have to show they are searching for jobs, Gov. Bill Lee said Sept. 15.

Lee’s statements came during a press conference call with community newspaper reporters from across the state under the auspices of the Tennessee Press Association.

Lee said community papers are the avenue to get the word out to the public.

“The Tennessee Department of Health updated reporting data,” Lee said. “As we have moved through the pandemic, we learned a lot about what information is relevant. The CDC will change a particular guideline, so we update, things like duration of infection. The biggest change is less data, and it is more relevant. Active cases instead of cumulative cases. There is a better county-by-county picture. In some counties, we have real challenges for lowering the virus.”

On small business relief, Lee said, “We have funds for this – 40,000 businesses. About half have responded; about half the money was used. Sept. 25 is the deadline. We want these tens of millions to get to businesses in your community. Remind business owners, including entrepreneurs, to engage with the revenue department – $25,000 to $30,000. Not every business qualified, but 40,000 do. Go to tn.gov/revenue.

“Unemployment is a devastating result of the virus. Claims are diminishing, which is encouraging. The federal assistance ended as of Sept. 5. We continue with state unemployment benefit. We are reimplementing work search requirements, which had been halted. This resumes Oct. 4 for people to continue to receive the benefit.

We recently rolled out police reform measures. This includes tracking an officer’s infractions to prevent bad officers from job-hopping.”

On schools reopening, Lee said, “We are very encouraged with the leadership Tennessee took. We are into the fifth week of school. The Department of Education created dashboard using districts’ reporting of data.”

Lee then took questions from reporters. He was asked about the law enforcement reform committee, what prompted the review and whether local agencies were receptive.

“Nationally, there has been a great conversation for the need of policing and how policies are appropriate, and interaction with communities,” he said. “I have respect for law enforcement agencies in this state. We are a nation of law and order, and it is vital we provide protection. But with George Floyd and other cases, inappropriate use of force and duty to intervene policies, those are really important areas with which we need to look inward. No one is as upset about bad actors as good officers. We need to support law enforcement but hold them accountable.

“So, we had great cooperation with agencies across the state, chambers and others. You can look at the task force members online. These updated policies are something that few states have done yet. It is a first step. I came from the business world. We did strategic improvement analyses every year. That is my recommendation to law enforcement.”

Lee was also asked to discuss reinstating the work search requirement.

“The most important thing is getting our economy back and getting people back to work,” he said. “There is tremendous demand by employers for employees. Companies can grow and thrive and our economy can move forward. We recognize people need a hand up during unemployment, but the Department of Labor has a tremendous number of resources to connect people to jobs, so we require they show they are trying to get work and connect them with resources.”

Lewis County question: Our paper has worked on a human trafficking series and found how that for 76 percent of underage girls being trafficked, the transactions began online. During this time where kids spend more time online for education, how can we protect children?

Lee fielded a question on protecting children from becoming victims of online human trafficking after a human trafficking series revealed 76 percent of underage girls trafficked, the transactions began online.

“Thank you for your work on human trafficking, which is one of the enormous challenges and is misunderstood,” he said. “This is not a problem that is isolated to big cities or midsize towns. We believe there is an increase…recently we had the TBI report on the apparent increase in predatory activity online for children because of the increased number of kids online for learning. We are seeing an uptick in reported cases. So, TBI has increased their surveillance. Parents and educators should be aware. Send tips to the TBI.”

A question from Murfreesboro/Main Street Media of Tennessee: School boards are starting to pass resolutions urging a moratorium on standardized testing and accountability in response to the pandemic. Other school boards are passing resolutions asking that drops in enrollment not be counted against the BEP funding formula. Given the challenges districts face with distance learning, is this something you would consider?

Lee was also asked a question regarding a possible moratorium on standardized testing and accountability in response to the pandemic and whether enrollment drops should be counted against the funding formula, given the challenges districts face with distance learning.

“It’s a very important issue, and it’s one we’re all wrestling with,” Lee said. “The impact of COVID on our education system are just beginning to surface. And we see them emerging, and they’re significant. There is much we don’t know yet on what the impacts will be. Testing is important so we know where our kids are. What we do with that information in the future … there is still much to be discussed. But understanding the situation our kids are in is important. How much information did they lose last year during the closure? What is our proficiency in 4th-grade reading? Where do we stand today compared to where we were before the pandemic? We should understand where our children are; what we do with that, there is a lot left to be said. That is what districts are wrestling with: performance reviews for teachers. Those are completely changed because of the impact of COVID. The BEP funding.

“We believe we know BEP funding will need to be consistent, that we hold districts harmless on funding based on assessments. … We already made that decision, that BEP will continue forward, but we need to find out where kids are today.”

Another question dealt with whether the state is looking at an increase to the social distance guideline of 6 feet.

“We use the CDC to craft the majority of our health policies, and we have seen nothing from them about increasing distancing,” Lee said. “This is the first I heard of this.

Lee fielded a final question about the small business relief deadline and how to use the potentially leftover funds.

“We think about it every day,” he said. “We have a financial accountability group to make sure we are good stewards of the CARES Act money. We have had a number of initiatives. In some cases, we have changed the ways we are spending some funds; we wanted to get some to businesses. We will look at offering another business relief program. We are offering rural broadband expansion and may do more of it.”

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