Schwinn to consider waivers to shift schools to virtual learning as COVID spikes

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced Friday she will consider granting waivers to let school districts shift to remote instruction in response to outbreaks of COVID.

In a letter to superintendents, Schwinn said the seven-day waivers will be at classroom or school levels only, not entire districts, and won’t be required to move individual students online due to virus-related quarantines.

Schwinn wrote that the “additional flexibility” was necessary, but that the waivers will be “narrowly applied to preserve in-person learning wherever practicable.”

Her announcement came in response to a surge in pediatric COVID cases, a wave of school closures and canceled bus routes, confusion about the state’s rules for providing remote instruction, and inconsistencies in how those rules are being applied.

On Wednesday, after Gov. Bill Lee said he won’t issue an executive order to allow entire districts to move online, Schwinn said school systems already have the ability to shift to virtual instruction for individual schools or classrooms without dipping into days stockpiled for inclement weather and illness.

But administrators complained about mixed messages from the state, and Schwinn promised to deliver clearer guidance in the wake of last week’s 57% increase to 14,000 pediatric cases across Tennessee.

Her letter said the waivers aim to provide “a nimble approach” to help schools navigate the worsening pandemic. She promised her team will review any waiver requests three times a day and respond as quickly as possible, but that she will make the final decisions.

Districts must document and demonstrate “a significant impact of COVID-19 quarantine or isolation on school operations, impacting students, teachers and/or staff,” according to a copy of the waiver request form. If a waiver is granted, all extracurricular activities at the school must also be canceled.

Dale Lynch, who leads the state superintendents organization, called the introduction of a waiver process “good news” for both districts and students.

“This is a critical need, and we’re appreciative of any flexibility that will allow schools to keep operating and students to keep learning,” he said.

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White said he supports the process as well.

“I believe this is a way to address the need for schools to have virtual learning during this time of Covid spiking, but at same time set parameters on how long virtual learning can take place based on quarantine guidelines,” said White, a Republican from Memphis.

This developing story will be updated.

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