School Daze

Penny Schwinn and Bill Lee

School Daze

With attendance and testing requirements for the year suspended, state officials grapple with grades, scholarships and what comes next.

by jesse fox mayshark • april 10, 2020


state education commissioner penny schwinn and Gov. Bill Lee at a briefing on Thursday.

Tennessee public school students may or may not see the inside of a classroom before the end of this school year, but even if they do, state officials know it’s pretty much a lost cause academically.

The state Department of Education has created some confusion about its post-pandemic plans.

“Even if schools were to resume for several weeks ... there would be little opportunity to finish out in any meaningful way the rest of the semester,” said Sara Morrison, executive director of the state Board of Education, during a meeting of the board on Thursday afternoon.

During the meeting, held via conference call, the board approved a slate of emergency measures in line with actions by the state Legislature last month, suspending attendance and testing requirements for the remainder of the year.

They also addressed concerns specific to high school students on track to graduate next month, who are anxious not only about receiving their diplomas but the grade point averages that will go along with them and could determine college acceptance and scholarship eligibility.

Public schools are closed across Tennessee through April 24 under an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee. The state board’s actions Thursday are essentially stopgap measures to get local school systems through this period.

“There are so many unknowns,” board Chair Lillian Hartgrove acknowledged. “We do not know when the executive order will be released and what the summer will bring forward to us.”

State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn addressed questions about what comes next during Lee’s daily COVID-19 briefing shortly after the board’s meeting. She said the state will submit an application later this month for federal funding promised by Congress to help school systems recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schwinn’s Department of Education has created some confusion this week with suggestions about possible summer make-up days, which the department then walked back. She did not address those issues Thursday.

“Each state is required to submit a plan (for the funding) that the U.S. Department of Education must approve, and we expect those applications to be available by mid- to late April,” Schwinn said.

Tests, Grades and Scholarships

Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas said in an email statement Thursday afternoon that he was grateful for the state board’s actions.

We are pleased that the state board saw the importance of giving local school districts the maximum flexibility during this time,” Thomas said. “We will be implementing a plan that is aligned with the new rules that were approved today and will always make decisions that are in the best interest of our students.”

Among the emergency provisions approved by the state board are:

  • School systems cannot require attendance or mark students truant for failure to participate in any remote learning activities they make available while schools are closed. Many school systems, including Knox County, are providing some level of instruction or review materials either online or via paper packets. Many teachers are also engaging students online via email or video conferencing. (Knox County’s resource page, consisting mostly of PDF worksheets, is here.)
  • High school seniors will receive grades for their classes no lower than what they were as of March 20. School systems have the option of providing extra work to allow seniors to raise those marks so that they can graduate with higher GPAs.
  • All year-end state testing is suspended, although school systems can choose to administer the tests if feasible.
  • Student performance data from this year won’t be used in teacher evaluations, but school systems can use information from classroom observations performed earlier in the year to make decisions about personnel placement and to provide professional feedback.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told the board that students may be nervous about having grades sufficient to qualify for the state’s HOPE lottery scholarship program, which requires a 3.0 GPA.

But he noted students can also qualify by scoring at least a 21 on the ACT college entrance exam or a 1060 on the SAT test. He also said the HOPE scholarships are not the only vehicle for post-secondary aid.

“In Tennessee, financial aid takes many forms,” Krause said.

Morrison told the board there will be further decisions to make in the near future as school systems attempt to recover from their lost time.

“The harder work is still ahead in terms of us as a state assessing what instruction looks like when schools do resume,” she said. “There need to be a lot of national conversations, statewide conversations, stakeholder conversations about the next series of decisions to come before the board.”

What’s the Plan?

In her appearance at Lee’s briefing on Thursday, Schwinn promoted a survey the state Department of Education launched last Friday, asking for public feedback on how it could best use whatever extra federal funding the state receives for education.

The deadline to fill out the survey is Monday, April 13.

“We are also getting feedback through emails through calls, and through continuing engagement with all of our stakeholders,” Schwinn said.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to be distributed to K-12 school systems across the country. Tennessee’s share is estimated at $257.5 million, along with another $63.1 million that Lee will have discretion to provide to districts most affected by the pandemic response. 

The state survey caused some initial confusion, because the original version included questions that made it sound as if the state was considering adding instructional days during the summer in 2020 and/or 2021. But then those questions vanished, so that people who opened the survey Sunday saw different options than people who opened it when it was first sent out.

In an email earlier this week, department spokeswoman Victoria Robinson said, “The initial version of the survey was not consistently interpreted as intended and there was some confusion that the department intended to mandate additional learning time. To take that feedback into account, the department amended the survey and noted changes in the revised survey language.”

The confusion was compounded by an interview in the trade publication Education Week with Julia Rafal-Baer, chief operating officer of a nonprofit advocacy group called Chiefs for Change, made up of district and state education leaders across the country.

Schwinn is an alumnus of the group’s “Future Chiefs” program, and in the interview as originally published, Rafal-Baer singled out what she described as Schwinn’s post-pandemic plans for Tennessee. Those included, Rafal-Baer said, “a surge of 20 days of learning over the summer, to make up for lost days.”

But in an email, Robinson described that quote as “absolutely inaccurate” and said the department was seeking a correction. The quote was subsequently changed in the article, although it still includes a reference to “Tennessee's plan for a ‘summer surge.’”

Education activist and blogger Andy Spears, who publishes the Tennessee Education Report, also posted a slide show produced by the Department of Education last week that includes references to possible after-school and summer education to recover time lost to COVID-19 prevention.

The slide show notes that if students don’t return to school at all this year from April to August, they will end up being out 19 straight weeks. It cites data from studies showing that even during normal summer break, students’ test scores decline by “at least one month’s worth of school-year learning.”

The slide show says, “Additional instructional time will be necessary to compensate for missed learning opportunities.”

Whether such opportunities would be mandatory or left up to individual school systems is unclear. Schwinn said Thursday the department’s application for federal aid would take into account concerns from across the state.

“As we look at what comes next, we will continue to do all that we can to support our schools, our educators and our children,” she said.