House to hold special hearing on school return as legislators, conservative activists raise concerns about Commissioner Schwinn

As schools navigate reopening and staying open during a pandemic, some Tennessee lawmakers will return to Nashville in the coming weeks to hear updates and demand answers. 

The Tennessee House Education Committee is set to meet Sept. 22 and 23, and for some legislators, top of mind is Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who has found herself the target of ire from right-wing activists in the state who are loudly making their qualms known.

A series of social media posts, videos, newsletters and other grassroots communications aimed at conservatives has set off a firestorm.

While concerns about Schwinn’s policy initiatives have been brewing for months, outrage over her goals for the department came to a head in recent weeks thanks to the failed rollout of a child well-being check program. Critics of the initiative, which some understood to include checks on non-public schoolchildren, called it government overreach.

Legislators weren’t consulted about the program — though it has since been rolled back — which further raised tensions. 

“There’s a pattern here of not letting the committee know,” said Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, who is a member of the House education committee. “We have to express to her that we are the funding body. We write all the checks for all the departments. And they have to make sure they have that respect for us, that they’re going to ask us.”

BACK TO SCHOOL: Tennessee students among first in the nation to return to school, some start year virtually

The Professional Educators of Tennessee, a nonpartisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, laid out a scathing review of some of the grievances lawmakers have with the state’s schools chief last week, including speculation that lawmakers might seek a “no confidence” vote on the commissioner when  they convene again later this year.

J.C. Bowman, the group’s executive director, said the organization is not advocating for such a decision but did lay out concerns about how the commissioner has handled reopening schools amid the pandemic.

“Our criticism of Commissioner Schwinn has focused specifically on her handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” Bowman wrote. “The latency in sending out the state’s reopening plan, failure by the state to provide PPE and cleaning supplies to schools and districts in a timely fashion, and the ill-conceived monthly child well-being inspections that would further increase educator workload and expand government.”

In a statement Monday, Gov. Bill Lee’s spokesperson Gillum Ferguson defended Schwinn’s record, while the education department says it has focused on providing support for districts, students and families since March.

“Commissioner Schwinn is leading the department through an unprecedented crisis and the most challenging school year in the history of our state,” Ferguson said. “We’re glad that Commissioner Schwinn is in this position at such a challenging moment because she is willing and capable to meet it. 

“I’d challenge you to find a state that has worked as hard to make an in-person option for working families available while also providing critical resources for the health and safety of students and staff.”

The education department pointed to a number of ways, from funding to outreach, where the agency has helped local school districts.

While House members will have the opportunity to ask Schwinn questions at the hearing, with a handful likely grilling the commissioner harder than others, rumblings about the education committee taking a no-confidence vote have been quashed. 

“This no-confidence vote and everything, I’ve been hearing that since last January,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who is chair of the House education committee. “I hear that kind of talk all the time. It’s nothing particularly new right now.”

White said the September hearings are a way for legislators to receive updates from various stakeholders on the ground and involved in the process of adjusting school during the pandemic.

PREVIOUSLY: Gov. Bill Lee confident in Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s leadership amid department turnover

MORE: House members raise concerns with fast rollout of Gov. Bill Lee’s $68M literacy initiative

He said he is not in favor of trying to take a no-confidence vote and noted that the legislature is not in session anyway. White encouraged members who have serious concerns with Schwinn to reach out to her to discuss their issues.

“I’m going to control the committee to stay on topic with things,” White said of the upcoming hearings. “Whether or not you have confidence with the commissioner, I’m asking the members to take that up one on one with the commissioner and the administration.”

Though White has concerns of his own, specifically over communication with the department on major initiatives like the child well-being checks, he believes the hearing, and officials’ attention in the coming months, should not center on Schwinn’s performance. Ensuring children don’t fall behind this semester is paramount, while also trying to find solutions to issues like a lack of broadband internet access, he said.

“I think we’ve got bigger issues right now with the disruption in the education system,” White said.

He said Friday he was set to meet this week with Schwinn while she visits Memphis.

Educators criticize lack of guidance

Meanwhile, school leaders across the state have also criticized the the department’s guidance, or lack thereof, for reopening schools this fall. Though Lee and Schwinn pressured districts to reopen, many superintendents and directors say they were left on their own to figure out when and how to reopen — or close — schools.

“I feel like we were given no guidance and very little help,” Fayette County Schools Director Connie Smith told The Tennessean. “We had to discover this on our own and start from scratch. … We had already opened schools when we got guidance from the governor on reopening, and we didn’t get much guidance from Commissioner Schwinn. That’s a hard thing to say as someone who used to work for the department.”

RELATED: How should districts notify parents about confirmed COVID-19 cases in their child’s school?

Ferguson included a lengthy list of resources the department provided to schools regarding resuming classes during the pandemic, including a series of toolkits the department released to school district leaders over the summer, the $77 million the state has spent to provide personal protective equipment, a partnership with Trevecca Nazarene University to provide training on teaching virtually to thousands of teachers and cleaning supplies to every teacher and other grant opportunities to support districts’ individual needs. 

The department has released more than 70 guidance documents related to school closures, 25 reopening toolkits that provide checklists and best practices on topics such as school health and school nutrition, and a guide for reopening schools that includes an overview framework and more than 10 different paths districts can take to prioritize reopening schools, according to an emailed response to questions from The Tennessean on Monday. 

But some of these toolkits are the type of information coming from the department that has some school leaders frustrated. They don’t have time to page through packets of optional guidance or instructions just to be told “it’s really up to you,” school directors said.

Many school districts have struggled with purchasing and deploying laptops for students and teachers to use if school buildings are closed, training teachers to conduct classes in a virtual environment, gathering enough cleaning supplies and even selecting or paying for online curriculum supports. 

This is Freddy Curtis’ second year leading Cannon County Schools, home to just under 2,000 students. His teachers are leading live lessons both in person and streamed to students at home because his district couldn’t afford to purchase Edgenuity or a similar online curriculum like larger districts have for virtual learning.

What he said he needs the most right now is 700 laptops for his elementary and middle school students, but even if the district could afford them, the computers likely wouldn’t arrive until next year. 

Though Tennessee school districts received more than $260 million from federal CARES Act funding allocated to the state, it’s not enough, he said. 

MORE: Tennessee’s share of federal stimulus money for schools estimated at $260 million

RELATED: COVID-19 pandemic made digital learning a ‘critical resource,’ but are schools prepared for fall uncertainties?

Lee rolled out the state’s reopening guidance on July 28, a week after some districts had already started in Tennessee, with an emphasis on students returning to class in person.

Districts were expected to submit “continuous learning plans,” or their strategy for ensuring students are learning if and when schools go online, to the department. But many started the year without an approved plan. The plans also weren’t expected to include information about how school districts are tracking confirmed COVID-19 cases or informing students and families about cases in schools. 

“What they should have done is say, ‘This is what we expect’ and then we can work toward that, instead of saying it’s a local decision, then I make the local decision and they don’t like it. …That’s the quandary that all of us are in,” Curtis said.

Only about 15% of Cannon County students are learning from home, whereas Fayette County Schools are all remote — like the state’s two largest districts in Shelby and Davidson counties — for the time being.

Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, said he’s heard similar sentiments from directors across the state. 

“I think there has been quite a bit of guidance, but I think a lot of superintendents have already had to make plans and then have had to react to some guidance as well,” Lynch said.

With reopening plans varied across the state, many districts have faced criticism from parents and community members both for reopening in person and for remaining virtual, as well as whether student events and sports are canceled. They’ve also faced questions about what data they are using to make those decisions.

Directors would have been receptive of specific statewide guidance, especially if it was released earlier, Lynch said. 

Education department officials also emphasize the efforts its leaders put into communicating with stakeholders, particularly superintendents and school leaders.

“Before and during this pandemic, the department has focused on direct, frequent, and consistent open lines of communication with superintendents,” according to the department’s email on Monday. “As our key stakeholder group, and faced with a myriad number of questions following the spring closures, we’ve never had stronger communication with (superintendents).”

This includes conducting statewide superintendent calls three times a week, one-on-one communication, a Superintendent Study Council that meets once a month and other engagement groups, according to the department. 

The department also has regular legislative affairs calls with elected officials and has hosted three webinars with members of the education committees and the education chairs over the last several months, according to the agency email. 

Outrage over well-being checks prompts halt to program

Some of the guidance that has been provided has later been walked back or changed as well. The department released recommendations for how districts could conduct “well-being checks” on children in school communities with the help of $1 million in federal funds, only for Schwinn to backpedal the recommendations and apologize to lawmakers days later.

Some called the recommendations government intrusion. Many educators simply said they didn’t have the capacity to conduct checks.

“Our teachers have enough to do without having to do this other stuff on top of it,” Curtis said. “I don’t even have a social worker in my district.” 

White has served on the House education committee for seven years — two as chair of the committee and five years before that chairing an education subcommittee. 

He heard about the well-being program after some members had gotten wind of directives that went out to school districts about it. White said it was probably well intentioned, but was ill-conceived and did not sit well with many people.

“I’ve got a lot of background,” White said. “I know how the members think, I know how Tennessee thinks. Come to me and get my advice. We were not given any advance warning this was going to come out.”

MORE: Tennessee Department of Education walks back child well-being check guidance after backlash

Cepicky said he questions whether Schwinn understands “Tennessee values,” elaborating that he meant prioritizing “freedom and liberty” in policy plans. 

“You can take a no-confidence vote, but it’s as good as the paper it’s printed on,” Cepicky said. “She works for the governor, and Gov. Lee has continually expressed his support. As a committee, can we figure out a way to work with the commissioner?”

Now that a no-confidence vote is likely off the table in the near future, Cepicky said it remains to be seen whether Schwinn will adequately address lawmakers’ and conservative citizens’ concerns.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.

RELATED: Tennessee Department of Education recommends middle, high school students wear masks

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and a member of the Senate education committee, is among lawmakers in his chamber who are also fired up about Schwinn’s initial directions to school districts about the at-home checks. Bell, whose children were home-schooled, noted that the program would have applied even to students at private and home schools.

“It was completely irresponsible to send something like that out,” Bell said. “I think it just added more fuel to the fire of dissatisfaction with the job the commissioner has been doing.”

Retiring Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, still remains chair of the Senate education committee through the fall. Gresham said she has no plans to hold a similar hearing in the Senate but is eager to hear testimony from the meeting.

“We all have concerns about the Department of Education and how it’s operating,” Gresham said Thursday.

House members initially invited Schwinn to appear before the government operations committee on Aug. 25 regarding the child well-being check guidance but later removed her from the agenda.

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Reach Natalie Allison at Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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