Lee says virtual education parents could draw unemployment, but Labor Department uncertain

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 16, 2020 8:21 AM CT | Published: July 15, 2020 3:27 PM CT

Tennessee parents who decide to stay home with their children for virtual education are eligible for unemployment and cash assistance, Gov. Bill Lee said this week.

<strong>Gov. Bill Lee</strong>

Gov. Bill Lee

But the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is still clarifying the state’s position as the school year approaches and is prepared to offer unemployment through a federal program only if a district uses 100% virtual education.

Lee said during a Tuesday press conference the state has “taken significant steps” for parents who stay home with children even if they’re called back to work. Department of Human Services funding through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program also is providing child-care payments to Tennesseans throughout the pandemic, “and that will continue,” Lee said.

“They have access to that money as it now. The way that unemployment is working in the coronavirus environment allows that, and TANF funding is available for (child) care,” Lee said.

SCS sets school year start date at Aug. 31, last day June 16

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson raised the issue with Lee in a July 9 letter.

<strong>State Rep. </strong><strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

State Rep.

Antonio Parkinson

The Memphis Democrat pointed out parents are faced with the decision to send their children to school or keep them home to avoid contracting COVID-19. He noted the state should be prepared to assist parents who make the “tough decision” between finances and health risks.

“The DHS roles and those of our unemployment systems may increase due to these decisions being made. This is a hard position to be in but an unfortunate reality for many of our families across the state,” Parkinson’s letter says. “What are we doing to prepare for those parents whose unemployment may be affected due to the decision to keep their child/children outside of the physical classroom?”

Parkinson asked the Lee Administration to put together “safeguards and policies” for parents who keep their children in a virtual education environment.

In-school or at-home learning: Parents face a tough question

The governor’s statement during a Tuesday press conference doesn’t exactly jibe with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development policy.

Chris Cannon, assistant administrator in the department, said Wednesday, July 15, if a child’s school district chooses to open this fall with 100% virtual classes, parents could be eligible for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) under the provision as the primary caregiver for a child whose school closed because of COVID-19. Under Tennessee policy, though, people are ineligible to receive state unemployment payments if called back to work.

It is unclear, however, if this scenario would play out in Tennessee unless school systems use only virtual classrooms. Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools are planning to offer hybrid methods of virtual and in-person education starting in August.

“The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development is currently seeking guidance from the United States Department of Labor to clarify this interpretation and also determine if a parent is eligible for PUA if their child’s school district offers a choice between in-person and virtual classes,” Cannon said in a statement.

Tennessee is putting $1 billion into its unemployment insurance trust fund from $2.3 billion it received through the federal CARES Act. The state had $1.2 billion in the fund before the crisis hit and spent $443 million in fiscal 2019-20.

The state has received $3.2 billion in federal unemployment funds.

The Department of Human Services also had a $720 million surplus in TANF funds as of late 2019 and was preparing to look at the best ways to spend that money. DHS has received funds $127.5 million from the feds through the CARES Act.

Coronavirus relief funds also can be used for distance learning grants, and the state allotted $81 million for education, including about $50 million for school districts to buy new technology for virtual learning.

The Department of Human Services did not respond Wednesday to questions.


Bill Lee Antonio Parkinson Chris Cannon Department of Labor and Workforce Development
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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