Schwinn to consider virtual waivers for schools as COVID cases rise


Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced Friday that she would consider granting waivers to allow school districts to switch to distance education in response to COVID outbreaks and a spate of school closures. ‘schools.

In a letter to superintendents, Schwinn said the seven-day waivers would only apply to classrooms or schools, not entire districts. But waivers will not be needed to move individual students online due to virus-related quarantines.

While “additional flexibility” is needed, Schwinn said the waivers will be “applied narrowly to preserve in-person learning to the extent possible.”

Its announcement came in response to an increase in the number of pediatric COVID cases, a wave of school closures and canceled bus lines, confusion over state rules for providing distance education and inconsistencies in the way these rules are applied.

On Wednesday, after Gov. Bill Lee said he would not issue an executive order to allow entire districts to move online, Schwinn said school systems already have the ability to move schools or classrooms. towards virtual education without tapping into the days stored for inclement weather and illness. .

But administrators and parents have complained about mixed messages from the state, and Schwinn has vowed to provide clearer advice.

Dale Lynch, who heads the state superintendent’s organization, called the new waiver process “good news” for educators and students.

“This is a critical need, and we appreciate any flexibility that will allow schools to continue to operate and students to continue to learn,” he said.

House education committee chair Mark White also welcomed the change.

“I think this is a way to meet the need for schools to have virtual learning during this peak COVID period, but at the same time setting parameters on how long virtual learning can take place based on quarantine guidelines, ”said White, a Memphis Republican.

Schwinn letter says waiver process aims for “an agile approach” to help schools deal with worsening pandemic, marked by 14,000 pediatric COVID cases in Tennessee for the week ending August 21 . She vowed that her team would review waiver requests daily and respond “as quickly as possible,” but make the final decision.

According to a copy of the waiver request form, districts must document and demonstrate “a significant impact of COVID-19 quarantine or isolation on school operations, affecting students, teachers and / or staff.”

If a waiver is granted, all extracurricular activities at the school must also be canceled.

Last year, districts had the general authority to switch to virtual learning when needed. But because the spring tests showed students were significantly behind academically, a new state rule for 2021-2022 requires schools to provide in-person instruction and tap into the days stored s ‘they must close.

This week, as more schools in Tennessee closed, educators, parents and policymakers called for extended remote options to deal with the most contagious delta variant.

Earlier on Friday, Democratic leaders in the legislature called on the governor to offer school leaders immediate flexibility.

“We have children sent home to quarantine with no clear way to stay on top of their homework. This is unacceptable, ”the Democrats’ letter said.

Schwinn told Chalkbeat that she plans to consider waivers for “the foreseeable future” and would reassess the need “week by week”.

“I think this is the right approach, and I have no doubts that districts will be wise in seeking exemptions,” she said. “It is always very important to maximize in-person teaching. ”

Below you can read Schwinn’s letter to the superintendents:

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