#CancelBillLee

Center Square reports on how Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration continues to fail our public schools. This time, the news is about how Lee’s team has failed to expend millions of dollars in CARES Act funding at a time when Tennessee teachers are literally dying from COVID.

Here’s more:

More than six months after receiving more than $596 million in federal COVID-19 relief for education, entities in Tennessee have spent just over 43% of the funds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

Under federal law, states must spend education-related COVID-19 relief within one year of the grant date by the U.S. Department of Education, or funds must be returned to the federal government. Tennessee funds were awarded by the USDOE in late May, so agencies have less than six months to spend the remaining 62 percent of funds before they are returned.

This is also noteworthy:

The federal database does not report how much of the $64 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds awarded to the Tennessee Department of Education the state has spent, but state documents provided to The Center Square reveal the state’s plan for use of those funds, including $30 million earmarked for implementation of a literacy coaching program and literacy training for K-3 teachers statewide.

Let’s just be clear: Gov. Bill Lee cancelled a planned teacher pay increase this year fearing COVID-related economic concerns. Then, received millions in CARES money (Tennessee’s share for education was around $600 million). Lee did not offer teachers a bonus for teaching in a pandemic. He didn’t direct money to schools. His team is just sitting on the cash. Then, they put additional money toward a suspect literacy program.

Let me say this again: Tennessee teachers are dying because of failed leadership at the state level. District leaders look to Bill Lee who says it’s totally fine to operate without a mask mandate and that schools should be open — schools, by the way, are open, even if the buildings are closed. Lee is sitting by while teachers die and sitting on money that could help schools and kids.

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COVID Claiming Lives of Tennessee Teachers

A second Rutherford County teacher has died as a result of COVID-19. Siegel High teacher David Pickelsimer recently passed away, as noted by the Rutherford Education Association:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1338211588474626054?s=20

Earlier this year, another Rutherford County teacher, Susan Keener, also died as a result of the COVID-19 virus.

The Murfreesboro Holler is noting that concerned educators are expressing concerns.

With COVID cases across the state escalating at a rapid rate, it’s unclear why more direct action has not been taken on a statewide basis.

Of course, Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration has been running from the issue instead of taking it on directly:

If you know of a teacher who has died as a result of COVID-19, please let me know via email: andy@tnedreport.com

I’ll be happy to post a note about this teacher and any words in memory you’d like to post. Please let me know the school system in your email.

It would also be good to get a clear handle on how many teachers and families of teachers have been impacted by COVID. I want to honor these educators who gave their all for their students. Further, there’s a very real risk with this virus, and collecting information and data will help illuminate that risk.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Some Very Good Questions

Nashville education blogger TC Weber asks some very good questions for those insisting we just open schools and let all the kids back in. Weber has noted in the past that while school buildings in Nashville aren’t open, schools are open. Teachers are working, instruction is happening, and children are learning.

Here’s some of what he has to say to those aggressively insisting on re-opening the buildings:

Arguments around the re-opening of schools serve to illustrate our penchant to proclaim that “students should come first”, while continually acting in a manner counter to that mantra. We are like shoppers on Black Friday, cordially sharing coffee and stories until the doors open, then it’s suddenly a mad rush, with elbows flying, to fulfill our desires. If we were truly concerned about kids, we’d be developing solutions that addressed their specific needs before shoving forth our primary desires to open school buildings.

rally for the latter was held yesterday at Bransford Avenue by the Parent Group, Let Parents Choose. Two school board members – John Little and Fran Bush – were in attendance, along with roughly 100 community members. A decent, but not overwhelming turnout. While I sympathize with their cause, some of their arguments call for pushback.

In a rush to open schools, children’s social and emotional well-being is often cited as a core reason for re-opening. A legitimate issue, but one that falls into the aforementioned trap of ignoring existing conditions. I don’t doubt that there is ample evidence of increased student depression and anxiety, but how do you isolate the cause of that depression and anxiety? What is school closure related and what is brought forth by dealing with the effects of a pandemic? Is a child depressed because they can’t receive in-person instruction or because a parent has lost income at work and is struggling to meet the bills? Is a child anxiety-ridden because they can’t interact with their peers in-person, or is it because pandemic-related issues are causing the disintegration of their parent’s marriage?

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Grace

In response to the responses she received to this post about poverty, school funding, and teacher pay in light of the realities laid bare by COVID-19, MNEA President Amanda Kail posted a follow-up.

Here’s what she has to say:

What a hard and heavy year. In the fierceness of all the rage and bitterness, I will do my part. I will apologize. If you are a parent, and you took my most recent post to be about blaming you, or blaming people living in poverty for anything, I am deeply sorry. That was not my intent at all. I was trying to say that asking underpaid public employees and underfunded public institutions to carry all the weight of our society’s problems without ever being willing to provide the funding is a terrible way to solve problems. But I don’t want to cause anyone pain. I have spent way too much time listening to my fellow educators break down, to my friends and family reeling with grief, to my fellow Americans spewing hatred and death threats to want to be a source of one more bit of pain or suffering. I am sorry. Period. And even though all the rage and sorrow this conversation provokes makes me want to scream, I’m going to choose not to. And I need you to do something. I need you to stop shouting and listen too because educators are in a whole lot of pain right now, and the shouting is only making it worse. Please. I am asking you to just listen to a few things.

1. All of the studies saying schools are safe have the caveat that schools can be safe under particular conditions, namely small class sizes and good ventilation and also controlled community spread. At MNPS you can find the first two only at our more affluent schools but not at many others, and obviously community spread is anything but controlled. That is why, and let me be clear because I think there has been a great deal of confusion about this, MNEA is calling for small class sizes, updated ventilation, and expanded paid sick leave for all employees (not raises) as a condition for being back in buildings.

2. The virus is not impacting everyone the same. If you don’t know a teacher or student who has lost over a dozen family members to Covid, you aren’t talking to the right people. And when you argue with teachers and tell them they are being hysterical and uninformed about not wanting to be back in buildings, you are touching that raw place of pain and loss and what teachers hear you say is “you and your family’s lives are expendable for our convenience”. I really, really, really need you to hear that. Regardless of what you mean, that is what we hear.

3. So maybe a better way to approach the argument is to say “I’m so sorry you have lost many people you love, that you are doing your best to care for an elderly parent, or a chronically ill child or spouse, that you are terrified that you are placing them or yourself or your pregnancy at risk by being in a school building while also trying to teach in very trying circumstances. How can we ensure we have safe schools for all, so that you won’t have to worry?” And here- I’m going to also say use caution, because the reality is you would have to come up with a great deal of funding very quickly, funding that has not been there for years. Teachers know this. That’s why we respond so skeptically to questions like that. We know the state of our schools. It’s not theoretical to us at all. It’s like saying, “what can we do to make you feel safe about getting into this leaky boat in the middle of a hurricane that under normal circumstances you have to spend as much time bailing as rowing to get anywhere?” So if you are going to ask teachers that, maybe a better way to say it is “We realize now that underfunding public schools has left you in a very precarious position and we are sorry. We have have learned from this and are now going to focus our energy on getting our schools fully funded as quickly as possible so you can actually have safe conditions.”

4. One of the main reasons classes are now online is that we don’t have enough adults available to keep kids safe. We have so many people out sick or in quarantine that we literally don’t have enough people to keep a building open. That will continue to be the case as community spread rages. Two things you can do to help with that, join the TN physicians at Protect My Care to demand Governor Lee issue a statewide mask mandate- https://protectmycare.org/covid-email/?ms=WebsiteMenu and sign up to be a substitute teacher. We have a huge shortage of substitutes. So if you truly believe school buildings are safe and we need to be in there, I am asking you walk the talk and help keep buildings open. Here is where you can apply- https://www.mnps.org/substitute-application-process

5. Kids who are attending in-person classes are more likely to have their learning disrupted than those who are online. Every time a kid quarantines, they are on their own academically for the duration of the quarantine. Also, because of there being so many people out, many teachers are reporting to us that they are having to just put all of the students in the gym in order to just monitor students. Not optimal learning conditions to say the least.

6. If we are going to require teachers to be back in buildings, we need expanded, paid sick leave. Teachers don’t get to choose whether they are in-person or not. They can apply for accommodations, but that doesn’t guarantee they can teach virtually. Often there aren’t enough virtual positions available. This has been particularly hard for teachers with serious health problems like cancer who have already had to use their FMLA (and so have burned the sick leave that is how they get paid during FMLA). Right now there are many such teachers who have had to either go back into buildings even though their doctor said not to, or who had to go back out on FMLA but are not getting paid at all. This has created a tremendous hardship on teachers who are already struggling with serious health problems. If all teachers were virtual, these are teachers who could teach no problem. Also, some teachers have had to quarantine several times and have burned up their federal Covid leave. Now if they actually test positive, they will have to use their sick days. Also, there are many school employees who don’t get paid sick leave at all, such as part time employees or substitutes.

7. Let’s move conversations about equity from theoretical to actual and do the work. MNEA has been reaching out to groups of parents that face the greatest challenges with online learning, starting with immigrant families. The thing I hear the most often is that it’s very difficult to keep up with what is happening, especially with language barriers, so communication and also that internet access is still a big problem. Instead of getting mad at a severely underfunded school district for not providing enough technology or internet access, we need to think seriously about how we can push for internet access to all parts of the city. We need to ask what tools do our schools need to better communicate in the 100s of languages, and also to parents whose lives are constantly disrupted by poverty resulting in disconnected phones and evictions. Also, many of the parents have to work in unsafe conditions in factories, construction sites, warehouses etc. They are also worried about bringing the virus home to their families. They do not want to place educators, their fellow workers, at risk and they wish others were fighting similarly to protect their health and safety. One thing we can all do is join groups like https://www.workersdignity.org/ to advocate for safe working conditions, not only for educators, but for all workers in our communities. Can we do this Nashville? Can we stop shouting and actually do some work together to support students, families, and educators in our city? Making equity happen can’t be about yelling at others to sacrifice on behalf of everyone, especially when you are asking people who don’t have very much to begin with to do the sacrificing. Let’s work together to bring down community spread. Let’s work together to make sure we have the schools all children deserve. Let’s work together to make sure there is equitable investment in all parts of our city. And finally, let’s ensure all workers are kept safe during this dangerous time. And maybe most importantly, let’s act from a place of compassion, where we think to ask “are you ok?” before we condemn and ridicule someone in this fight. There are just way too many people who are not ok right now.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Gross Underreporting

The Tennessee Education Association has sent a letter regarding concerns with the state’s COVID data relative to public schools to Gov. Bill Lee and included Commissioner of Health Lisa Piercey and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.

Here’s that letter:

Over the past month, TEA has conducted a continuous review of local COVID-19 infection data of educators and  students. According to the data, COVID active case rates of school staff are consistently higher—sometimes  double—the rates of the communities those schools serve. The data indicate in-person instruction increases  infection risk and that Tennessee educators will become ill at a far higher rate than the state’s general population.  TEA calls on your administration to immediately 

• call for a mask mandate for all school staff and students; 

• publish firm state guidance for infection thresholds for school closure; 

• provide substantial emergency state school funding for high quality PPEs, updated HVAC and air quality  systems, and additional cleaning services;  

• enforce all CDC guidelines for school operations;  

• fund extended educator sick leave for active cases or quarantines;  

• issue guidance to prioritize assigning educators with underlying conditions to remote instruction;  • provide additional health benefits and coverage for staff who have been infected; and • provide hazardous duty pay for all staff directly involved with students.  

Another state action that should be immediately taken is to either improve the data of the Department of  Education statewide COVID dashboard or take down the website. It is clear there are significant errors in the SDE  dashboard; gross underreporting is apparent when the student infection numbers are cross-referenced with  concurrent Department of Health cases for school-age children. The SDE should require accurate LEA reporting of  student/staff COVID cases or stop publishing flawed datasets. 

It was demonstrably wrong SDE reporting that led TEA to review six school systems who have local COVID  dashboards and publish timely and accurate infection data for students and staff. These systems teach  approximately one-quarter of all Tennessee students, a strong sample size providing statewide insights. TEA used  this local data to determine highly elevated infection rates among school staff compared to the communities  where they serve. The state should require every school system to maintain accurate local COVID dashboards for  the remainder of the pandemic.  

The importance of in-person instruction to the academic and emotional wellbeing of students is undisputed;  however, the demonstrably higher infection rate of Tennessee school staff cannot be ignored. There are actions  your administration can and must take to reduce infections until a vaccine can be widely distributed. 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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A Post-Pandemic Dream

School Board member Emily Masters has a dream. It’s a dream of a Nashville that actually values public education. With actual money. Like dollars. Lots of them. She writes about this dream in a recent blog post.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

Shouting “kids need to be in school” is about as helpful as shouting “this virus needs to go away.” As of September 10th, children accounted for 9.2% of the 166,587 positive Covid cases in Tennessee. 208 of the 7,444 Covid-related hospitalizations in the state were children. Of the 1,931 deaths from Covid in Tennessee, .02% were children. Statistically insignificant, right? Probably not to the friends and families of the 5 children who died.

Simply insisting “kids need to be in school” and hoping for the best won’t eliminate the risk that teachers, family members, and even some children may become seriously ill or even die from the virus.

For more than a decade Nashville schools have not received full funding, yet now the additional costs for virtual school technology and Covid-related safety measures must be covered. If schools, families, and the entire community can work together to get through this, then perhaps the stage will be set for a real change post-pandemic: a Nashville that places value on education above all else and recognizes that the benefits of fully funding and resourcing schools will resonate throughout the entire community for years to come.  

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Gross Misrepresentation

That’s how one school district leader described Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s recent statements on learning loss as a result of school schedule changes related to COVID-19. Chalkbeat has more:

Pre-pandemic test data analyzed by national researchers — not recent back-to-school test results from Tennessee students — was the basis for state projections this week that proficiency rates will drop by 50% or more for third-grade reading and math due to schooling disruptions during the pandemic.

Schwinn had said her estimates were informed by back-to-school testing data that was voluntarily shared by some Tennessee school districts, combined with national study and analysis by two groups. But asked later for details, members of her staff referred only to “national researchers using historical, Tennessee-specific data.” That data dates from 2014 to 2019, before the coronavirus emerged in the U.S.

Numerous superintendents said Schwinn’s comments were misleading in suggesting that recent homegrown data was taken into account in formulating the state’s projections.

“This is about doing your homework,” said Leah Watkins, superintendent of Henry County Schools in West Tennessee. “Before the state releases numbers to millions of Tennesseans, let’s make sure it’s accurate and shared with appropriate context.”

She called the presentation a “gross misrepresentation” that left out important facts.

“It sends a message to the public of gloom and doom — that what we’re doing in our public schools is not adequate,” Watkins said.

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Perhaps Commissioner Schwinn is borrowing from the McQueen playbook when it comes to her relationship with the facts.

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Of Teachers and Lamar Jackson

Nashville education blogger TC Weber makes an apt comparison of teachers during COVID and Lamar Jackson.

Here’s more >

It needs to be recognized that once again, teachers are doing what they always do – rising to the challenge. Less than two month into an unprecedented cultural revolution, positive things are happening.

And once again, we are doing what we, always do – demand more while giving less.

Time to break out a sports metaphor. If I have Lamar Jackson on my team – Baltimore’s superstar QB for those unfamiliar – do I let him focus on just being a QB, or do I say, “Hey you are pretty good at that QB thing, now I’m going to need you to coach special teams, fill the water coolers for the team, and if you could, take up tickets from fans before the game.”

It sounds ludicrous, yet that’s what we do with teachers every year. Instead of allowing them the ability to focus on what they do best, we invent new responsibilities for them. This year we are asking them to be navigators, IT specialists, data entry specialists, video stars, and whatever else we can throw on the plate. Name me the teacher prep program that prepared them for any of those roles. Meanwhile, we conveniently forget that they are also parents and spouses themselves.

Going back to Lamar, if the Baltimore coaching staff finds him sitting slack on the locker room bench, eyes glazed over, clearly mentally and physically exhausted, do they say to him, “We know you are really tired but we really need you to learn this new playbook by tomorrow because we are switching strategies. The fans in the box seats, don’t like the way we are doing things, so we are going to put a little razzle-dazzle in for them. But make sure you get all that other stuff too.”

Or do they say, “Damn, you are our team leader and we need to let you work your magic. We need you fresh and sharp. Let’s get somebody else in to take these added responsibilities off of you. in order to make sure that you get the proper rest and nutrition. We need you to be able to perform at peak level, so we are going to offer supports.”

READ MORE from TC >

The current situation reminds me of what Peter Greene wrote over the summer:

It would be great—absolutely great—if elected officials responded to the current situation by saying, “There is nothing more important than our children’s education, so we are going to do whatever it takes, spend whatever is necessary, to make sure that every single schools has every single resource it could possibly need to make its students and staff safe and secure and able to concentrate on the critical work of educating tomorrow’s citizens. We will spare no expense, even if we have to cut other spending, raise taxes on some folks, or spend more money that we don’t actually have.”

Nobody who has been in education longer than a half an hour expects that to happen.

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Very Strange and Stressful

That’s how the President of the Metro Nashville Education Association describes the environment students will face with in-person learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s here statement as reported by NewsChannel5:

“We know that online learning is far from ideal, especially for students with the most severe and profound disabilities and early elementary, and so it makes sense to begin in-person classes with these groups. We are concerned, however, that parents may believe their child will be returning to a ‘normal’ classroom, when in fact there will be little that is normal. Students will not be able to move about freely. They may be confined to their classrooms, or even an area of their classrooms. They will not be able to speak, work, or play with their classmates. They will be wearing masks all day except to eat, and their teachers will be wearing masks, face shields, gloves, and other protective equipment. There will be no reassuring hugs, and smiles will be impossible to see. For very young children, this may be a very strange and stressful situation. It is important that parents truly consider what an in-person classroom will look like in the midst of a deadly pandemic before they make the decision of whether to return in person or remain online.”

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A COVID-19 Delay

The Tennessee Education Association is calling for a statewide delay in reopening schools because of the current levels of COVID-19 infection rates.

Here’s more from a press release:

Recent COVID-19 data does not support reopening school buildings and the resumption of in-person instruction in any part of the state. No system should make the decision to reopen school buildings, and where in-person instruction has begun, it should be suspended by the local district.  

The resumption of in-person instruction is a local decision, as it should be. However, directors and school boards who do not have local health departments with expertise in virus transmission rely on the state, and the state has refused to set thresholds when school buildings must remain closed due to new virus infections

TEA references a Harvard School of Public Health research-based guidelines on school building reopening and the resumption of in-person instruction. Any new case rate over 25 indicates no in-person instruction should resume.

Today 55 of 95 Tennessee counties have more than 25 new cases daily over the past 14 daysAnother 17 counties are ­­above 20 cases with increasing rates in new infections that indicate they will be above 25 if current trends continue.

Yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx, chief national advisor on the pandemic, said if there are high caseload and active community spread, federal officials are asking people to distance learn at this moment to get the epidemic under control. Birx also said in Nashville last week that rural infection rates are likely far higher that what is reported. 

“Every school system should delay reopening of school buildings and begin the school year via distance learning, and if school buildings have reopened they should be closed. Unlike other states, the governor and commissioner cannot mandate school openings nor penalize districts for delay. This is a local decision and we are putting out virus data to show there is no sound decision on resuming in-person instruction in Tennessee,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Educators want to get back to in-person instruction. However, it is prudent and not contrary to Tennessee law to delay reopening school buildings for the next several weeks, when hopefully the data shows new infections have slowed. Parents and educators should demand this delay and hopefully can use the framework we rely on to inform their local school officials.”

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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