Governor says he now wants to make school COVID figures public

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 20, 2020 8:28 PM CT | Published: August 20, 2020 5:49 PM CT

Two days after saying the state can’t release school COVID-19 figures, Gov. Bill Lee said he wants to make the information public and is seeking permission from the federal government.

“That’s why we’re pursuing it,” Lee said Thursday, Aug. 20, in a press briefing.

No provisions in place to alert general public to COVID-19 cases in schools

The governor said he has spoken to the leader of his COVID Unified Command, Butch Eley, and told him the group needs to “think about this as parents and what we would like to have as parents.”

Lee said his administration recognizes transparency is important but that parents also want their own children’s information to be private. The governor and his commissioners of education and health have all said they can’t release information on COVID cases in individual schools because they could violate federal health privacy laws and risk identifying children.

“It is the balance, and it’s the struggle,” Lee said.

Yet he said Thursday his administration has “reached out” to the U.S. Department of Education to see whether it can release that type of information. School-based COVID numbers are being released in states such as North Carolina and Kentucky, and some Tennessee districts such as Putnam County Schools are posting information on their websites to let the public see how many cases are being detected in individual schools.

The governor noted federal funds are tied to following U.S. guidelines and that violating federal law could be a “problem for the state.” Lee said his office consulted with Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office to craft its decision.

The governor two weeks ago said the state was putting together a plan to let the public know about cases in individual schools. Instead, it put together a “dashboard” on its website where the public can find any school in the state to see whether it has closed down a wing or shut temporarily because of the virus. But it does not include individual school numbers and some districts are using that as a defense to avoid releasing figures to the public, as was done initially with nursing home cases.

Lee stuck with the plan during a Tuesday press conference but appeared to bend Thursday toward a desire to release the information if possible. His office has said for the past week the administration is working on the matter.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat who listened to Thursday’s press conference, said in a tweet, “Wait what!? They’re flipping again!? I hereby dub @GovBillLee & Co. 'The Tumbleweed Administration.' Whichever way the wind blows … on any given day. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so serious and devastatingly bad for TN families.”

Cybercrime against kids rises

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is detecting an “uptick” in cyber crimes against children across the state as more young people spend time online during the pandemic, officials said Thursday. Children are spending more time at home and more time on the computer, including for school purposes.

Tips of cyber crimes against children doubled in March and April from pre-COVID months before leveling off, and so far this year the TBI has received 450 cybercrime tips, about 90% more than usual, mirroring the national rate, according to TBI Director David Rausch.

“Not only are children working more in a virtual environment, but so are the sexual predators,” Rausch said.

The agency has a division dedicated to investigating those reports, and Rausch said he “reallocated” special agents to work on cases. TBI also has a human trafficking unit that focuses on catching sexual predators.

Rausch encouraged parents to keep an eye on what their children are doing while on a phone or computer. For instance, children should use computers in open parts of the house such as the kitchen, not in bedrooms, he said.

“It’s OK to read your child’s chat history,” he said. “Tell your children you want to be a second set of eyes.”

Anyone with a concern or tip can contact the TBI at or by calling 1-855-558-6484.

COVID spending

Lee announced Thursday his administration will use federal COVID funds to invest $61 million in broadband expansion across the state this year. That will come on the heels of spending $43 million to increase accessibility to the Internet.

The state also recently announced $83 million in COVID funds will go toward business grants for groups such as event caterers. The Lee Administration previously made grants totaling more than $200 million available to small businesses across the state but had trouble getting business owners to apply.


Bill Lee John Ray Clemmons David Rausch
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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