This is a summary of Gov. Bill Lee’s Sept. 23 press conference. Officials spoke about low student proficiency numbers and the Tennessee Promise.
Lee: Returning to classrooms is important. We are seeing a report with alarms on students being out of classes on learning.
Penny Schwinn, Education Commissioner:
Our dashboard: 95 percent of districts have reported on positive cases. 96 percent of districts have an in-person model for students.
Learning loss: During summer break, we expect the summer slide in proficiency. Students were out of school a long time. Some schools have not had buildings open in over six months. This is compounded by three additional months of building closures, as well as online learning. We saw a significant decrease in proficiency this fall: 50 percent decrease in third-grade reading and 65 percent for math. It is really hard to teach a child to read through a computer. In third grade, it is normally a 33 percent literacy rate, but we are looking at 12 percent. In math, we normally have 33 to 35 percent proficiency in 4th grade, but it is 17 percent.
Mike Krause, Tennessee Higher Education Commission:
We have a pipeline challenge: We need to make sure this year’s high school seniors become next year’s college students. Emergency financial aid actions from HOPE scholarship and Tennessee Promise.
Promise: Eight hours of community service is typical, but we are waiving that for the fall to avoid losing students. We have a small student loan program; we looked at whether they can defer all payments to June 2021 and we have done so, and frozen interest.
HOPE: 50,000 use it every year. This was not built for current circumstances, especially last spring for online classes with pass/fail grades. HOPE is not set for a binary grade. We sent guidelines to campuses to not penalize students.
High school seniors: Apply by Nov. 1 for Tennessee Promise, but we hope you would do so this week.
Q: What is your message to Nashville restaurant and bar owners who feel they were crushed based on in sufficient data?
Lee: To Tennessee business people all over the state: We have a responsibility to mitigate the spread of this virus and to protect livelihoods. That is why we made an effort to loosen restrictions on businesses. People depend on these small businesses, and that is why we sent aid to businesses. We need jobs to be created in our state.
Q: Was there sufficient data July 2 for the massive closing and the rollback of restaurants?
Lee: We worked with local leaders to make decisions based on their data. I said last week…the mayor asked me for funding and I said our strategies have been different.
Q: There was a report the Health Department conceded that 14,000 cases were labeled as active when they were not, inflating the numbers. One Williamson school board member said they would have opened schools in person if they had known. Has the state’s error complicated reopenings?
Lee: On reopening, and somehow implying there is a desire to make the virus worse than it is. I was one of the last to close and one of the first to reopen a state. I welcome any data that shows improvement – it has to be right data. Cases continue to go down while we open up.
Q: Did the state’s error make it more complicated?
Lee: It depends how people use data. We made it clear how it should be used and how it should not. People have to be very careful about using data to make decisions.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health Department: You mean the data refresh we did before Labor Day. We talked about always constantly updating that data. Nothing was intentional or a ruse. Active vs. recovered: The case count was never incorrect. On Sept. 3 we changed it from 21 to 14 days. The case count was never altered. You must be careful on how using data; we never advocated on using active case counts but said it is a multi-faceted decision in conjunction with a local health department.
Q: You spoke about the death of George Floyd and the officers should be brought to justice; we saw that officer was not charged with homicide. Was that justice?
Lee: To the Floyd death and the understanding we have that law enforcement plays a vital role in society and law and order are crucial. We have a real responsibility to make sure police engagement…that is why we created the police task force and they issued a report, the first step in making sure we have a professional law enforcement and we hold ourselves accountable.
Q: In Louisville?
Lee: We are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen here.
Q: Have you met with Mayor Cooper?
Q: Today, Sen. Akbari said she would introduce legislation to end no-knock warrants. Would you sign that?
Lee: I think there will be a number of bills we all should look at.
Q: Yesterday, superintendents told the House Education Committee about the low numbers of cases related to schools in their counties. You advocated for in-person learning. Is that risky to students and families?
Lee: We have about 0.5 percent of schools that had a closure or some level of closure. Districts did an incredible job. We see today how important it is we have students in the classroom.
Q: Considering the talk in the Education Committee on the problems students are having…would you recommend that teachers be given a hold harmless deal on TN Ready this spring?
Lee: What is most important we have an assessment of students this spring so we know where they are. The Legislature has a decision to make about changing responsibility of how assessments affect teachers.
Q: Would you support…
Lee: I would support them looking at it.
Schwinn: We have got to focus on school reopenings. Now we have to measure how students are doing. We need to have a broader conversation about teacher accountability. Not in the first few weeks of school. It takes the Legislature.
Q: You said math and reading will be off so much. How can you expect teachers do well on evaluations?
Schwinn: We need to focus on students for now.
Q: They talked in the Education Committee today about the need to take a new look at the assessments instead of TVAAS, some other process to evaluate teachers. Would you support that?
Lee: I would support a conversation with all the stakeholders.
Q to Schwinn: What is your message to parents who see their students struggling? What immediate changes need to happen?
Schwinn: I have two girls at home and we are trying to keep them on track. There are a few things. We have a majority of schools open in person, and that is the best place for education, especially at a young age. Early reading and math are important; families can read to their child; we have resources on the website. Be in touch with your teachers.
Q: What is the Education Department doing with these new numbers?
Schwinn: Districts will …. teachers will have conferences with parents. We are working close with superintendents and there will be literacy programs. PBS has programs.
Q: What data are you basing this on?
Schwinn: There was a study in late June, a predictive model on how students would perform after school resumed. There was a combination of data districts are giving us along with beginning of the year checkpoints the department is offering for free.
Q: What is a beginning of the year checkpoint?
Schwinn: This is a short form assessment that matches the TCAP from last year.
Q: It seems the state of emergency and other orders will be up on Sept. 30. Do you plan to extend them and the one allowing for masks?
Lee: There are many implications for the state of emergency. We are looking at that now and will have that before they run out.
Q: With the learning loss among third graders…might you consider a special session?
Lee: We just got this information. We have many people to decide what to do. We will evaluate this data.
Q: Regarding the Louisville decision, do you have a message for Tennesseans?
Lee: It is tragic what happened. It is complicated. We want to do everything to make sure it does not happen here. “Everything” is a very comprehensive word. There are many ways we are approaching, from the reform to meeting with community leaders.
Q: You mentioned how you sent thank you cards to Alexander and Blackburn on filling the Supreme Court vacancy. What do you say to Republicans who appear wishy washy on this issue?
Lee: I am not wishy washy. Our founding fathers understood there would be seasons like this, which is why they built the Constitution like it is. This is no new precedent. One-third of presidents have filled vacancies in election years.
Q to Schwinn on literacy rates.
Schwinn: These are students in buildings now who deserve to have a good opportunity. We received $40 million in grants to support literacy remediation.