White predicts difficulty reopening schools; governor set to announce decision

By , Daily Memphian Published: April 14, 2020 5:08 PM CT

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White would like graduating seniors to be able to return to high schools at least one more time before June to see each other and wrap up the year.

Yet, despite the governor’s plan to start rebooting Tennessee’s economy in May, White is skeptical that can happen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Even if we lift the ‘Stay At Home’ (order) by the end of April, the social distancing is still going to have to continue. So I just can’t see us putting our children back in schools, in classrooms,” said White, an East Memphis Republican.

Gov. Bill Lee extended the order through April 30 and plans to reopen the economy in phases beginning in May. The governor said he will make an announcement Wednesday, April 15 about the state’s plan for reopening K-12 schools, which are closed until April 24.

<strong>Mark White</strong>

Mark White

The Governor’s Office did not respond Tuesday to questions about his plans, and he did not tip his hand during his Monday press conference.

White agreed with the governor’s decision to extend the “shelter at home” order through April and noted he’s getting calls from people who say they need to go back to work and church.

“But I wouldn’t want us to have wasted the last three weeks by letting it start all over again by cutting it off too soon,” White said.

He hopes the pandemic will start to end by late April followed by strict guidelines for social distancing, wearing masks and prohibitions on shaking hands. But he’s not sure if that is possible.

White sponsored emergency legislation shortly before the General Assembly recessed in mid-March giving schools some guidelines for finishing the year. But many questions remained unanswered, especially about the 2020-21 year.

The Legislature waived all end-of-year testing for students and numerous graduation requirements. Students’ grades were frozen in mid-March, and seniors need only 20 credit hours instead of 22 to graduate. The 180-day requirement for instructional days was waived as well.

The State Board of Education approved the changes Tuesday, according to White.

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The Tennessee Higher Education Commission also waived requirements for students to take the ACT and SAT tests.

But graduation ceremonies remain uncertain, especially since they’re usually held in large auditoriums with thousands of family members and friends attending. White would like to see high schools be able to hold small ceremonies where seniors could receive diplomas, but he’s afraid the coveted certificates might have to be mailed to seniors instead.

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown recently predicted more emergency rules will be needed to complement those adopted by the state board.

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“TEA is already hearing from members across the state with concerns about the impacts on tenure, differentiated pay and other issues affected by the suspension of evaluations and testing. The association will work closely with the department and the state board to ensure districts have access to the waivers needed to support teachers and students,” Brown said in a statement.

The House Education Committee went over several matters with the Department of Education and State School Board during a Wednesday online meeting.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, who serves on the House Education Committee, raised concerns during the meeting, saying he wants the State Board of Education to come up with a better process than “online remediation” for helping students improve their grades if they were struggling in mid-March with two months left in the year.

“My concern is in high-risk areas and rural communities where some don’t have access, that’s going to be problematic. And what it does is, it allows for the gap to be widened even more for those that have and those that don’t,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.

Meanwhile, parents and students need better communication from the state Department of Education about numerous items, including pending graduations, scholarships and military enlistments.

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“Communication has been a real challenge … not just with the Department of Education but the Department of Labor and others,” Parkinson said. “Being able to get these things communicated as far as possible into the household is something that the state definitely needs to work on.”

In early April, the Tennessee Department of Education said it had been communicating with school districts and issuing guidance for continuing academic instruction and meal services while schools are closed. Efforts included regular calls with district leaders, toolkits and online resources for schools and families and other items published on the state’s website, https://www.tn.gov/education.html.

The department also released a public survey asking for feedback on the best ways to help school districts deal with immediate needs during the pandemic. The deadline to submit suggestions was Monday, April 13.

School districts are eligible to receive one-time relief funding through the $2 trillion CARES Act, about $30.75 billion nationally, based on their Title I formula percentages.


Mark White Antonio Parkinson Beth Brown
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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