The Tennessee State Senate Approved Legislation Monday Evening That Would Allow Governor Bill Lee To Order Schools To Offer In-Person Learning.
Photo Credit: Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
Updated February 24, 2021
Published February 23, 2021
By Vivian Jones [via The Center Square] & The Tennessee Conservative –
Senate Bill 103, by Germantown Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey and Collierville Republican Rep. Kevin Vaughan, would authorize the governor to issue an executive order requiring all schools statewide to offer in-person learning.
Kelsey proposed the bill in response to outcry from Shelby County parents and students as schools had remained closed for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate approved the bill Monday in a party-line vote, 27-5. It now will be considered by the House.
Kelsey released a statement on Monday where he said, “This is a victory for students and parents as every Tennessee family deserves the choice of in-person learning. Allowing students to return to the classroom is long overdue as we have many students, especially low-income students, who are struggling this year and falling behind their peers. No one is saying that the governor should force students back into an atmosphere which they feel is unsafe. For those parents who want their children back into school, let’s follow the science, and the science says it’s safe.”
In recent weeks, Tennessee’s last two school districts to offer only virtual learning options – Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools – have announced plans to return to in-classroom learning.
Nashville students began a phased-in return to classrooms earlier this month. Shelby County Schools announced students will begin returning to classrooms beginning March 1.
New guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 12 urged schools to reopen “safely and as soon as possible … to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services.”
During the Senate debate, the measure received some pushback from members of the Democratic caucus, who argued the bill overrides local control of pandemic response.
“The Shelby County school superintendent is not operating in a vacuum,” said Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis. “He relies on safety rules. He relies on medical experts. He relies on the science. … But the reason we allow him to make those decisions is because he knows better than most what his particular county needs. It’s local control, which I think a lot of us have stated in here before that we believe in.”
Kelsey’s bill also allows schools to have the sole authority to choose to remain open or closed in the case of a public emergency, except in the case of a statewide order from the governor.
According to Kelsey’s statement, “Mandated directives should only come from elected leaders who are accountable to the people they serve. I am very pleased that the Senate has approved this legislation and look forward to seeing it passed by House and enacted into law.”
Schools in the Memphis suburb of Collierville released a reopening plan last fall based on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The reopening plan was not supported by the Shelby County Health Department.
“This bill puts the power back where it needs to be, and that is with the elected officials, because it is their responsibility to weigh all of the different factors into this decision making process,” Kelsey said.
While many representatives supported the bill, some did not. Representative Antonio Parkinson from Memphis felt it was not the safest way to get schools open again, specifically, Shelby County Schools.
Parkinson said, “I agree let’s get them open, but let’s do it safely. And I think there should be some grace cause the superintendent has stated, and the school board that they are working to open the schools so let’s let them get them open.”
However, representative Mark White of Memphis felt the bill was a good idea and that Shelby County should have already reopened.
“You know we’ve been out of school going on 10 going on 11 months. Most of the state is back in. It’s difficult. It’s not easy,” White said.
He also said, “We want to be safe. We want to respect our teachers and their desire to make sure they don’t take this infection home. I think the science and statistics prove we can do this safely.”
With the bill now passed, it is likely Shelby County will be forced to reopen sooner rather than later.
Kelsey said, “Right now, our students in Shelby County are getting left behind and that’s not fair to them. We have seen large urban school districts open, including right here in Tennessee. We need SCS to get on board and just like Nashville did.”
Parkinson said that opening schools are something that should be a local decision.
He said, “At the end of the day, neither the superintendent nor a state legislator nor the governor can make a parent put their children in an environment they feel is unsafe for their child.”