State officials detail relief for individuals, families, nonprofits

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 11, 2020 5:38 PM CT | Published: August 11, 2020 2:44 PM CT
<strong>Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in a file photo.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in a file photo. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Tennessee Department of Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes said 450,000 kids have been approved to receive EBT as part of pandemic food insecurity programs.

On the EBT for kids application deadline, Barnes said it has been extended several times. She denied there would be forfeiture of funds. But said she doesn’t know how many children will apply.

On the Tennessee Community Cares Program: $150 million in federal aid will go to nonprofits at grants from $25,000 to $2 million each. Agencies working with the program include the United Way of the Mid-South here in Memphis.

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It covers expenses as early as March 1 to reimburse. The application deadline is Aug. 15. 

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord on unemployment insurance and federal unemployment, as well as President Donald Trump’ executive order, specifically $300 federal unemployment insurance to go with $100 matching from the state:

It’s administered through FEMA and states have to apply. McCord said the state is “seeking clarity” including what qualifies as matching funds by state and what the allotment for Tennessee will be. The team is on call with White House now. Guidance will come later in the week.

On unemployment funds, Gov. Bill Lee said Tennessee has more than $1 billion in the state trust fund.

Lee said the unemployment rate in the state is “staggering, although it’s moving in the right direction.” 

“A lot of federal guidance has yet to be directed about this particular plan,” he said.

The cost to the state to match will be “significant,” he said.

McCord said they are trying to estimate dollar figures. “Back of envelope” calculations, he said, changed with new guidance today from the federal government. They are also waiting on the length of benefit.

”Right now we don’t have enough information to make good decisions,” McCord said. 

On the Congressional request for information of Tennessee’s response to the pandemic, Lee said he will respond by tomorrow.

Lee said on Tuesday that coronavirus numbers are “cautiously optimistic” with increased use of masks.

On the special session of Tennessee Legislature: Lee said liability protection for businesses can also handle businesses making false claims as well as protect the businesses from “frivolous” lawsuits.

On liability protection for businesses: Lee said there is a balance to protect individuals and businesses. 

”Protecting a business protects workers so long as that business has not had willful misconduct,” he said.

On telehealth legislation, Lee said it will provide greater access to health care. He said the pandemic shows the state’s health system needs some “modernization.” Insurance companies will pay for telehealth services, he said.

Third bill is policies for Capitol grounds. Lee said it will protect “peaceful assembly,” but protect against destruction of property. He said he hopes for consensus on that bill.

Lee on his concerns about the protest bill pending in special session: He said the bill is changing hourly. 

”Until we know what’s going to be in it, it’s impossible to address,” Lee said. But he said he thinks the bill is “moving in the right direction.”

Lee defended the need for a special session. He said liability legislation is important to clarify, as well as telehealth coverage and clarifying laws on protest — “protecting against lawlessness.”

“And I believe none of those issues should wait until the next session,” Lee said.

Lee said the majority of protests in Nashville have been peaceful. For others, “breaking the law is breaking the law.” “We construct law to prevent folks from breaking the law.”

On the “few bad apples” in law enforcement, Lee said he is working toward uniformity on police reform. He said systemic racism concerns part of the process of meetings with African-American leaders on “a long view ... of how it is we can address some of these things in the state.”

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On the idea of Attorney General prosecuting, Lee said he wants to read the final language.

On increasing sentence proposal and criminal justice reform, he said we need both.

On meeting with Legislature’s Black Caucus, Lee said he has no plans to but would be happy to.

On schools not reporting COVID cases as part of tracking cases in the state, Lee said it involves privacy and individual information of children.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said one-third of schools opened last week, another third open this week.

Schwinn said for “far too many” students COVID has an impact on families and communities. The task force is talking through child well-being standards across the state. Well-being test guidelines are to be used across the state for checking on students in school, as well as those learning online. That includes the transition from online back to in-person.

”These are not easy times for our school districts,” she said. 

Schwinn plugged “dashboards” on each school district on opening and how they are open. Start dates, too. It will be updated by districts and on the dashboard.

Schwinn said the Innovative Assessment Platform is up and running. It’s free and optional to school systems. It includes gaps in learning since school stopped last March. Also for teachers in the classroom to have easy to access user-friendly format for short-term quizzes to gauge growth or lack of it, by students. It can be done in-person or assigned online.

State officials are working with TEMA on when PPE shipments arrive at schools from the state and reordering as well.

On telling schools and parents about positive cases, Schwinn said the dashboard has protocols for notifying families separate from notice to public health officials. She said the protocols are already being used.

Schwinn on whether schools can tell students and teachers to wear masks: She said they are “encouraging” masks in middle and high schools.

”We do expect that schools are taking the necessary precautions,” she said.

Lee on mask requirements and statewide mandate: Lee says 70% of the state is under local requirements. 

”I think it’s the right strategy for our state,” he says of no statewide requirement. “Local buy-in is what really gets folks to wear masks.”

Schwinn on reaction of school districts with positive cases so far: She said she is pleased with responses, so far. They worked closely with local health officials on their decisions and openings with state education officials. They are pleased with the relationship.

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For those who will open later, she said they should use what works from this early experience and follow guidelines ?— social distancing and paying attention to transitions in activities.

On educational assessments and guidance for teachers: Schwinn said assessments include guides for teachers on how to use and what to do with info. Seeing gaps among students is much wider than what would normally see.

Lee said he won’t be going to the Republican National Convention.

Gov. Lee closed the briefing by saying: “We have a lot of challenges to work through.”


Gov. Bill Lee coronavirus Danielle Barnes Jeff McCord Penny Schwinn

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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