At TennesseeCAN, we work on a wide range of policies meant to improve educational opportunity and quality across the Volunteer State. We engage with policymakers at the Tennessee General Assembly, the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE), and families and grassroots leaders across this great state. Our board and staff bring a broad and deep perspective to the challenges facing Tennessee families during the COVID-19 crisis.
As advocates, we know if you want to make the world better, it’s important to move from listening to actual policy. With this in mind, we have several recommendations for our state on the use of the Education Stabilization Fund and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. We feel these recommendations address short-term student needs, while positioning Tennessee well for any future and unexpected disruptions from this pandemic or other unforeseen event.
Invest in Digital Infrastructure
Data from the Imperial College London point to repeat outbreaks of the virus until a vaccine is developed and widely administered. Experts believe this vaccine will not be available for 12 to 18 months. As a result, researchers at the college believe states and populated areas will experience cycles of social distancing, which include relaxing economic and community restrictions when the rate of infection stabilizes, and reinstituting them when it rises. This cyclical “opening and closing” of the state will, of course, also affect schools.
It is likely that we will see periods when students are in school and periods when schools must be closed due to the increased spread of the virus. If this “at school, at home” paradigm exists for the foreseeable future, then we must prioritize internet connectivity for the state’s low-income and rural districts so that some continuity of learning can be maintained. This isn’t just a priority for the education of the state’s children, it is an opportunity to build capacity that will support the state’s future economic growth. While we do not expect the DOE to develop expertise in telecommunications, it could structure incentives as a prize or competition, with the goal of increasing internet connectivity by 50% (for example) for these hard-to-reach segments by a certain time in the near future. The DOE could also invest in one-to-one device strategies that would, at minimum, allow districts to loan hardware to some percentage of their neediest students who do not have devices or connectivity in the home.
Fund All Schools Equitably
All schools—district, charter, and private—have been impacted by the crisis. We urge the department to ensure that all schools are also treated equitably as it distributes dollars from both the stabilization and governor’s funds. School cleaning, teacher training, technology, and meeting the needs of students with special needs are issues all schools face and distributing these funds in a fashion that is agnostic to school type will benefit all of the state’s children.
Fund Independent Assessment, Support, Enrichment, and Tutoring
In our grassroots advocacy efforts, many parents have indicated to us that they are worried about “where their children are” and “where they will be” academically given the disruption to the academic school year and uncertainty around promotion and readiness for work at the next grade level. We believe in high standards and aligned assessments at TennesseeCAN, and we share their concerns. A report from NWEA on learning loss as a result of the disrupted school year also affirms this concern.
We recommend directly funding parents who wish to have their children participate in assessments during the spring and summer months. Not only will this information be crucial to parents seeking interventions for their children when school is reopened, it will help level the playing field between more affluent parents—who will get this information from an enrichment provider or educational consultant on their own—and parents without the funding or access to similar services. Broadening access to assessments will help us ensure support and interventions are delivered equitably in the future.
We also recommend funding teachers directly who wish to tutor small numbers of students during the summer months (virtually or in-person when possible) to blunt learning loss.
Consider a Competency-Based Approach
Building on allowing parents to get independent diagnostics of where their children are academically, we urge the department and the governor to consider loosening age-based grade assignment in the upcoming school year. Given learning loss, its variation among students, and differences in distance learning plans, grouping students by skill rather than by age may help schools and districts better address their needs when school reopens.
Cast a Wide Net for Teaching and Learning Talent
Whenever the new school year begins it will likely require large-scale reassignment of teachers based on student need and teacher skill. It may also require support from education support professionals, content matter experts from the business world, and those from industry with expertise in running apprenticeships. There will be much that needs to be taught and we should engage everyone who is able to teach to do so.
We recommend blanket waivers that allow for the deployment of a wide range of education and learning-related professionals in public school classrooms, and online when necessary, across the state. To the extent that stimulus funds can facilitate this, they should be used to do so. If the DOE must relax credentialing or certification to allow for expanding the pool of teaching and learning expertise, it should also do so.
Inter/Intra State Tuition Agreements
While connectivity may be an issue, ensuring students have access to rigorous, well-organized curricula from excellent teachers is another. Some schools, school districts, and charter networks across the country have quickly moved to organize and deliver their respective models online and in some cases are already serving tens of thousands of children every day. We urge the DOE and the governor to consider engaging these networks and allowing parents to virtually “send” their children to them when possible. TennesseeCAN also recommends engaging with these districts, schools, and networks to provide large-scale summer education that would both free up the time of local parents, and ensure students have a sequential and well-organized approach to learning that helps ameliorate summer learning loss.
No Money for Nothing
Our final recommendation is not something for which the Department of Education or the governor should allocate funds, but something for which they should not. In our research, we have noticed a disturbing trend as some districts across the country—faced with the obligation to implement distance learning—instead simply give up and provide very little learning support, or essentially give district staff an early vacation. While the coronavirus crisis has foisted many problems on our economies, communities, and schools, this is the most acute of all. We urge both the Tennessee Department of Education and the Office of the Governor to make clear that, where the education of our students and the dual CARES Act education funds are concerned, there will be no “money for nothing.”
At TennesseeCAN, we know that this is a journey, and as citizens of this great state we want us all to arrive at the destination together. Funds from the CARES Act give us the chance to start the trip off on the right foot.
 Ferguson, N. M., Laydon, D., Nedjati-Gilani, G., Imai, N., Ainslie, K., Baguelin, M., … Ghani, A. C. (2020, March 16). Report 9 – Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease-analysis/covid-19/report-9-impact-of-npis-on-covid-19/
 NWEA. (2020, April 9). New Research from NWEA Projects Major Academic Impacts from COVID-19 Closures for Students, Especially in Mathematics. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-research-from-nwea-projects-major-academic-impacts-from-covid-19-closures-for-students-especially-in-mathematics-301038036.html?tc=eml_cleartime