Gov. Bill Lee and officials talked about unemployment benefits, a special session and school reopenings during a press conference on Aug. 11.
Special session: Legislature is working on liability protection for businesses, churches and other organizations from frivolous lawsuits but allowing for cases for negligent conduct. Telehealth legislation will provide better access to care, allowing payment by insurance companies. A third bill addresses Capitol grounds protection and protection of law enforcement.
Penny Schwinn, Education Commissioner:
We are releasing guidance for wellbeing checks for kids not in school buildings. We got a CDC grant for eight staff to work with districts for wellbeing checks when not in school and make sure they have nutrition.
We have an assessment platform online for teachers to give brief assessments for first of the year to see if they have gaps from the closure, among other tools.
Danielle Barnes, Human Services commissioner:
Pandemic EBT: Schools are a place to get meals. We began giving benefits including payments of $5.70 for each meal they would have received in school. Grocers, Walmart and Amazon will accept. Students getting free meals are eligible. As of Monday, over 450,000 students were approved, just over half of all students in the state. Applications close this Friday. Go to our website to apply.
The Tennessee Community Cares program gives $150 million to nonprofits. Range is $25,000 to $2 million. Applications are open until noon on Saturday.
Jeff McCord, Labor:
President Donald Trump signed a memo on unemployment insurance: $300 federal for enhanced benefits and possible $100 state. This is given by FEMA with a grant process for states to apply. We are seeking clarity. We expect more guidance later this week.
Q: Do you know what the unemployment benefits would cost Tennessee and would the state participate?
Lee: The unemployment numbers are staggering but moving in the right direction, but that is why we need to mitigate the spread. We would participate in the new plan, it will be a significant cost, but not knowing the status it is hard to say numbers.
McCord: That is part of what we are learning today and this week.
McCord: They told us in the next couple of days.
Q: On the special session, will you talk about your reservations on the protest bill?
Lee: That bill was filed as I said to provide protection for First Amendment but also to protect from lawlessness. It is going through hourly changes. Clarity needs to be brought to the existing law.
Q: U.S. Rep. James Clyburn asked Tennessee for documents about COVID. The deadline is Wednesday. Have you responded?
Lee: We spoke about that today and the information to provide. We are working on a response.
Q: Was Tennessee unfairly targeted?
Lee: That letter went to a lot of organizations and states.
Q: One Democrat estimated the special session will cost $119,000 for three days. It has been called a waste of dollars.
Lee: It is meant to give liability protection for schools, health care workers and businesses. They make our economy move forward. Telehealth is very important in a pandemic. Clarifying laws as we have protests to make sure those people…protecting law enforcement is important. None should wait.
Q on pandemic EBT: If you don’t have families apply then, how much will be forfeited?
Barnes: It is not forfeiture. We have extended the deadline a few times. All dollars must be spent by Sept. 30, including an appeals period. We pushed this out as much as we can.
Q: A Republican today said most protests in Nashville were peaceful.
Lee: They have been.
Q: So why target this minority group with this law?
Lee: Breaking a law is breaking a law. Destruction of property is destruction of property. Those few bad apples are the folks who break the law.
Q: They want to address police brutality and systemic racism. You don’t seem to be targeting the few bad apples in law enforcement.
Lee: We had a press conference on our partnership with law enforcement to address issues around reform in policing and to have uniformity in that. There will be a report soon in the first step in reforms. I had three meetings with black leaders to listen and understand.
Q: How does this fit within your criminal justice plan?
Lee: Criminal justice reform is about appropriate sentencing and effective re-entry, but it doesn’t exclude penalties for breaking the law and working against lawlessness.
Q for Schwinn: Will schools be required to tell students to wear masks?
Schwinn: All our guidance encourages masks. The governor has allocated money for masks.
Q: How will schools tell parents about cases?
Schwinn: There are resources on our website. If there is a case, there is a district and school action team to notify families.
Q: A new poll from the Boyd Center shows most Tennesseans support masks in their local community. Does that affect your decision on making masks a choice locally?
Lee: Local buy-in is what gets people to wear masks. I think it’s working.
Q: Do you plan to visit the Republican National Convention?
Lee: It’s mostly been cancelled.
Q: You mentioned the federal unemployment. It sounded like you said if the matching money will come from our unemployment fund.
Lee: it would not have to reduce the baseline. We have over $1 billion in our trust fund. It would not necessarily reduce our current benefit.
Q: The liability protection bill, people worry it might go too far and give an organization a chance to skirt the rules. How do you make sure this does not happen?
Lee: That is the challenge.
Q for Schwinn: Districts that reopened, some of them had a few cases. How did they react?
Schwinn: These are the first districts in the nation to reopen. We know there will be positive cases. For the ones with cases, I am pleased with their responses.
Q: Assessments for falling behind. It is harder to make up in online schooling. Have you given teachers guidance?
Schwinn: This is hard. Teachers are working hard. There are videos to watch for remediation as additional support.