Lee wants full return to in-person learning as education-focused special session begins

Lee wants full return to in-person learning as education-focused special session begins

Gov. Bill Lee called for all Tennessee schools to return to in-person instruction in an address to lawmakers Tuesday, opening an education-focused special legislative session.

While pitching state legislators his administration’s proposals on learning loss, literacy, testing and teacher accountability, Lee took aim at two Tennessee school districts that have resisted returning to in-classroom learning throughout the pandemic: Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“You can’t say, ‘Follow the science,’ and keep schools closed. You can’t say, ‘I believe in public education,’ and keep schools closed. And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed,” Lee said.

Shelby County Schools has remained virtual throughout the 2020-2021 school year, and Metro Nashville Public Schools has not reopened classrooms to middle school and high school students. Other districts across the state have offered families a choice between in-person and virtual options.

Lee said his legislative proposals would be “paired with a full return to the classroom,” encouraging the districts to “follow the science.”

“He talked about using data that says kids do better in person, yet ignored the data on COVID spread. We know kids do better in person, but he didn’t do what was needed so kids can be in person. He ignored the science on COVID,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, tweeted after the speech.

Noting failures in Tennessee’s education system existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee said the pandemic deepened those challenges.

“When only 34% of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by fourth grade, and that’s pre-COVID, something isn’t working,” Lee said, noting that in the long term, learning loss can lead to higher incarceration rates and poverty.

In response, Lee outlined proposals to provide summer school and school tutoring, require school districts to use phonics-based literacy curriculum, and move forward with Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing, but suspend test-related accountability measures for the 2020-21 school year.

“These changes to our education system will actually educate our kids better in the future than we did before the pandemic,” Lee said. “And that is a redemption story for our education system that will have ripple effects on our students’ lives for decades and well beyond the classroom.”

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