Lee Administration to nix student wellness-check program before it starts

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 15, 2020 6:48 PM CT | Published: August 15, 2020 11:18 AM CT

Pressured by state lawmakers, the Lee Administration is reneging on a massive plan for school districts to conduct “welfare checks” on every child in the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn sent a letter to state lawmakers Friday, Aug. 14, saying the program, which would have given local district an option for “at-risk kids who continue to navigate prolonged time away from the classroom,” will be rescinded.

In her letter, Schwinn mentioned complaints by constituents and local education leaders about a document dealing with “welfare checks” created by her staff as part of the Child Wellbeing Task Force but did not discuss details.

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Students have been out of school since mid-March when the pandemic hit Tennessee and are starting to go back to classrooms, either virtually, in-person or through hybrid programs. Many are remaining at home because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The program’s goal was for “all” children from birth to age 18 to receive a wellbeing check each month from school districts to connect with each child to verify their condition and identify needs, according to the state’s guidance document.

Gov. Bill Lee has said consistently during the past few weeks he believes children should return to school despite the risk of COVID-19 spread because they face other problems at home, including potential child abuse, hunger and mental instability.

But some lawmakers believe the state overstepped its authority by proposing for local education departments to check on children, including homeschooled students, at their homes.

“Although well-intentioned, we have missed the mark on communication and providing clarity around our role in supporting at-risk students during an unprecedented time. Governor Lee has asked our department to remove this guidance and go back to the drawing board so we get this right,” Schwinn’s letter states.

<strong>Penny Schwinn</strong>

Penny Schwinn

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White said he started working to end the program when he found out about it Tuesday during the Legislature’s special session.

White said he determined it was “an overreach” and notified the Department of Education it needed to be stopped after receiving emails and calls from parents and school officials. The 26-page document detailing the program would have set up a new state program, he said.

“Too much, too many things, and would not have been able to be implemented years down the road. It was just too complex, birth to 18 and having trained liaisons, basically having to be a social worker, going into the homes,” White said. “This was going to be an impossible task.”

White said the program would have taken $1 million in federal COVID relief money and set up a grant program for school systems. After reading the documents, he said he came to the conclusion a $100 million grant wouldn’t have been able to fund such a program.

Schwinn’s letter says she recognizes the difference between offering support to “vulnerable” students and “potential overreach into what parents determine is best for their children.”

Typically, teachers and school staff serve as “critical support” for children and recognize when students have a problem and need extra help, Schwinn notes in the letter. She points out some students are homeless and live in abusive situations, and Lee wants the Education Department to help school districts respond.

“With those items in mind, we will craft an improved toolkit to provide districts with the information they need to address the needs of those at-risk students and also provide optional resources to help when needs arise,” Schwinn’s letter says.

Republican state Rep. Scott Cepicky of Culleoka in Middle Tennessee Cepicky wrote a Facebook post thanking “concerned citizens” for their “steadfastness” in pushing for the program’s reversal.

“The protection of your privacy and liberty are my major focus. As always, we will stay on guard and be vigilant when the new information is rolled out,” Cepicky’s post says.

In the thread, Cepicky clarifies that the “welfare check” program was “not a mandate” but an option. Yet he said the Department of Children’s Services and Department of Human Services should work on child abuse issues and the Department of Education should concentrated on “unprecedented issues facing our children and teachers.

“Oh and by the way, if a parent refuses to allow the interview, that information is documented. I wonder for what purpose?” he wrote in the post.

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Penny Schwinn Bill Lee Mark White Scott Cepicky
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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