COVID-19 and School Budgets

Even as the coronavirus highlights the value of public schools to our communities, school systems are facing significant budget uncertainty. Chalkbeat reports on how schools in Memphis are looking ahead and what COVID-19 might mean in 2020-21 and beyond.


Before a global pandemic closed Memphis schools indefinitely, Shelby County Schools was already planning staff cuts in its central office and in schools.


As of Saturday, Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration was expecting to eliminate 139 central office positions and 115 teacher positions, according to budget documents Chalkbeat obtained. Anticipated teacher raises would be 1% after state funding cuts last week. Overall spending for the $1 billion budget would be down $11.5 million, or about 1%.


Now as the new coronavirus spreads, the proposed 2020-21 budget is constantly changing as federal, state, and local governments adjust their spending plans for education.


And county officials, who provide local funding for schools, are researching what it would cost to get virtual classrooms fully functioning while also calculating an expected decline in sales tax money as households spend less on businesses that had to close or cut back operations during the pandemic. State officials rely on sales tax money for schools and are anticipating a significant drop in revenue.


“This is going to force us to be disciplined about what we invest in,” said Michael Whaley, who leads the county commission’s education committee. He added poverty should not be the reason students do not have access to online learning. “That’s just not fair to those students. I think this lights a fire to figure out how to do this.”

Funding is down under a recently approved barebones emergency budget, including money for teacher raises and other initiatives. Gov. Bill Lee has not yet earmarked money for districts to purchase equipment to launch online classes, so only districts that already had enough laptops for every student are fully switching to digital learning.

While state funding for investments in public school decreased from Gov. Lee’s original proposal, the budget does include more than $40 million to fund vouchers.

The legislature is slated to reconvene in June and it’s possible they could address long-term budget concerns for school districts based on the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown.

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COVID-19 and the Value of Public Schools

Donald Cohen of In the Public Interest talks about how the COVID-19 outbreak underscores the value of our nation’s public schools.

The worst of the COVID-19 outbreak is likely yet to come. But it’s worth taking a moment to think about why it took so long to close the nation’s public schools.

School districts nationwide finally began to close brick and mortar schools at the end of the second week of March, a full week after many college and universities sent students home.

Students, teachers, and parents are now embarking on the largest experiment in online instruction this country has ever seen—and many important questions remain. Will there still be standardized testing? What about kids who don’t have reliable internet access? How will districts ensure data privacy for students and families?

Another question: why’d it take so long to begin the experiment?

It’s simple. Public schools are public goods. They provide basic educational, social, emotional, and even physical needs to not only students and families but also entire communities. Closing them has effects that ripple out beyond school doors. As Erica Green wrote in the New York Times, mass school closings could “upend entire cities.”

Just look at the numbers:

The nation’s public school system serves more than 50 million students, many of whom have parents who work and need childcare during the day.

The federal National School Lunch Program serves food to over 30 million kids annually. Many families rely on school to feed their children meals throughout the school year.

There are more than 3.1 million public school teachers, many of whom are already struggling to get by. Teachers, paraprofessionals, front office workers, bus drivers, janitors, and other school staff rely on public school jobs to make ends meet.

But perhaps most importantly, public schools provide kids with the opportunity to learn alongside their peers. Schools are where the community comes together to learn and grow regardless of skin color, income level, sexual orientation, or any other difference.

Only public institutions—not private markets—can make sure that these basic needs are available to everyone.

The next few days, weeks, and months are uncertain, but one thing’s for sure: we’ll be learning how much public schools really matter to all of us. Some—teachers, administrators, and school staff—already know how important they are.

Chicago Public Schools has already handed out more than 90,000 meal packages including three days’ worth of breakfast and lunch.

Teachers in Noblesville, Indiana, decorated their cars and drove through students’ neighborhoods to honk and wave.

Bus drivers in Washington State’s North Mason School District are delivering bagged breakfasts and lunches to bus stops throughout the rural district.

(The Network for Public Education is compiling stories of how the public school community is serving the nation during the outbreak.)

Public schools matter because we all benefit from them regardless of whether we have a kid in school. Public schools matter because they’re public goods.

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Lamar Alexander vs. IDEA

The American Foundation for the Blind notes in a recent blog post that Tennessee U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander has suggested waiving IDEA requirements in light of COVID-19. Here’s more from their post:

During this national period of quarantine due to the novel coronavirus, many US schools have instituted distance learning programs that allow students to continue their education at home. This change should prevent students from losing important academic skills—for example, in reading and math—and ensure that they are prepared to advance to the following grade in the fall.

Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander stated that the Department of Education should consider allowing states to choose not to educate students with disabilities during the quarantine. Specifically, he proposed that the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issue waivers to states that would allow them not to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for one year.

However, the IDEA does not permit them the authority to waive these requirements. Therefore, some Republican leaders in Congress are trying to get language in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package that would ask the Department of Education to send a report to Congress listing waivers they would like the authority to grant.

The American Foundation for the Blind strongly opposes any efforts to undermine the rights of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like their peers without disabilities, students with disabilities need to retain important academic skills, such as reading and math, so that they don’t fall behind and are ready to pick up their education where they left off. For students with visual impairments, access to academic subjects often requires the use of braille, assistive technology, and alternative teaching methods. In addition, there are specialized skills that students with visual impairments need to develop such as how to use their remaining vision efficiently, how to travel safely in the environment (orientation and mobility), and how to use specialized technology such as screen reading software that allow them to access the curriculum. Students with disabilities already face many barriers to education, such as low expectations and inaccessibility. Allowing states to choose not to educate these students during this time will only widen that gap and put students with disabilities at an even more significant disadvantage to achieving academic success and eventually entering the workforce.

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April 24th

Today, Governor Bill Lee announced he’s recommending schools in the state remain closed through at least April 24th in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s a tweet from Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn:

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Clarksville Schools Closed Until May 1

Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools announced today they will be closed through May 1st. This marks the latest date of closure so far announced by any Tennessee district. Hamilton County previously announced closure through April 13th.

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Everything is Waived

Legislators today are advancing a bill that would grant the Commissioner of Education broad authority to waive various requirements related to public schools in light of the advancing Coronavirus (COVID-19). This includes waiving TNReady testing, the 180 day attendance requirement, and portfolio and value-added evaluation of teachers, among other items.

Here’s more on what’s included from Chalkbeat:


For the 2019-20 school year, other provisions of the proposal would:


Ensure that districts receive full state funding for the school year, even if students cannot be present;


Drop the requirement that high school students must pass a civics test to graduate;


Drop the requirement that 11th-graders take an exam to assess their readiness for college;


Require the state Board of Education to revise requirements so that no senior who is on track and eligible would be prevented from graduating on time because of school closings.

The move comes as districts across the state are announcing closures well into April. Currently, the latest announced closure is Hamilton County (April 13th).

As of this morning, the legislation was moved to the full House Education Committee.

Here’s a bill summary:


And here’s a response from Commissioner Schwinn:

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RESOLVED: End TNReady

While reports indicate Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has asked the US Department of Education for a waiver to TNReady testing requirements, the Columbia Daily Herald reports state Rep. Scott Cepicky is pushing for action on the issue.


State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Columbia, called on Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Department of Education on Monday to end the state’s annual standardized testing cycle.


“These are perilous times,” Cepikcy said in the letter. “Tennessee has unique circumstances as a result of devastating tornadoes and COVID-19. We cannot be certain that our state will not require additional school closings during the entire testing widow. However, Tennessee can’t administer assessments that are reliable and valid during this academic year.”

The federal Department of Education has issued guidance suggesting they will grant such waiver requests:


Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

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The End of TNReady

GOP Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison tweeted today that legislators and ostensibly state education policy leaders are working with the federal government to address the issue of TNReady and EOC tests in the age of Coronavirus. This comes after Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn indicated TNReady tests would likely continue absent legislative intervention.

Here’s Faison’s tweet:

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has indicated they are willing to grant waivers to testing requirements in light of the national emergency of COVID-19:


Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

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April 13th

So far, April 13th is the latest date a Tennessee school district will be closed due to concerns over COVID-19 (Coronavirus). This according to a story in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.


“As the response to COVID-19 evolves, I urge every school district to close as soon as practically possible, with all schools expected to close by Friday, March 20, 2020 at the latest. Schools should remain closed through March 31, 2020 to further mitigate the spread of this infectious disease and we will issue further guidance prior to March 31,” Lee said in a statement issued Monday morning.


In response, Hamilton County Schools sent out an email to parents Monday stating schools would be closed through April 13. Last week, the school district announced it would be closed until March 30 starting on Monday, March 16, in the wake of increased concerns about the COVID-19 virus.

At the same time, the Tennessee Education Association is calling for a cancellation of TNReady testing and for measures that would protect teachers and education support staff going forward.

Meanwhile, the last word from Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is that TNReady testing will continue this year.

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TEA Calls for Statewide School Closure, Canceling TNReady

Even as Gov. Bill Lee has called on schools across Tennessee to close as soon as possible to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn in her most recent guidance suggested that TNReady testing would continue. Now, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is calling on the state to release a plan to both cancel TNReady and protect educators and staff who may be impacted by the closure.

Here’s the TEA press release:

“As concerns about the spread of COVID-19 rapidly increases statewide, we are relieved to see Gov. Bill Lee take decisive action to protect students, educators and families. The Tennessee Education Association supports the call for an immediate closure of our public schools statewide.

The Center for Disease Control and other federal agencies have issued guidance that gatherings of more than 50 people must be avoided to slow the spread of this dangerous virus. With that direction, it is irresponsible to keep our public schools open. If it is no longer safe for the General Assembly to conduct business with the public present, it is no longer safe for our schools to remain open.

It is critical that the state implement a plan to ensure students’ needs are met and educators are not harmed during a statewide closure. Many Tennessee students face food insecurity at home and rely on their school for a hot meal each day. Many students are also without computer or internet access at home, and thus unable to participate in distance learning. The Tennessee Department of Education must act quickly to address these concerns and work to identify a solution to protect our students.

The state’s plan must also include protections for educators during a statewide closure. No educator should be forced to use sick time or go unpaid while the state copes with a global pandemic, this especially includes education support professionals. Local school districts are the largest employer in many communities. A disruption in pay for educators would significantly increase the financial impact of the pandemic in Tennessee.

TEA is also concerned about the upcoming TNReady testing window. The Tennessee Department of Education’s recent letter to directors of schools indicated TNReady testing will continue as planned. Tennessee students and educators are dealing with increased stress and uncertainty following the devastating storms in Middle Tennessee and now a global health crisis. It is inappropriate to move forward with TNReady testing this year.

The Tennessee Education Association is calling on the Lee administration and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel all TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system for this school year. There will be a significant loss of classroom time for students, and the continuity of instruction critical to building knowledge will be disrupted. Continuing with state high-stakes testing, or the time-consuming portfolio system used in Kindergarten and related arts, will only be setting our students and teachers up to fail.

The U.S. Department of Education has already released guidance stating it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests.

The Tennessee Department of Education and our state legislature must prioritize the health and well-being of students, educators and families. With that priority in mind the decision is simple to close all public schools, and cancel TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system. It would provide needed relief in this health crisis.”

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