The Tennessee Department of Education is walking back guidance it released to school districts last week for conducting “child well-being checks” after backlash from Gov. Bill Lee and other lawmakers.
In a letter from Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to members of the 111th General Assembly on Friday, Schwinn acknowledged the department had “missed the mark on communication and providing clarity” around schools districts’ role in supporting at-risk students while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many of you have been contacted by concerned constituents and local education leaders regarding a document on ‘well-being checks’ that was created by my team … to serve as an optional resource for local leaders to guide their efforts for at-risk kids who continue to navigate prolonged time away from the classroom,” Schwinn wrote in the letter obtained by The Tennessean. “Gov. Lee has asked our department to remove this guidance document and go back to the drawing board so we get this right.”
The guidance, one of several “toolkits” the department has put out over the past few months, was released Tuesday, Aug. 11. It followed an initial report and recommendations from a COVID-19 Child Well-Being Task force the department convened at Lee’s request in May.
The task force studied the impacts of long-term, statewide school closures on students this spring.
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The initial guidance directed school districts to determine community partners and staff who could work together to conduct child well-being checks. Those could include an email, phone call or a home visit from a staff member or liaison. Parent permission would be needed to speak with a child, but if a parent refused that would be noted in a database.
Data collected from these checks would be reported back to the department and its task force. The goal, according to the original guidance that has since been removed from the department’s website, was that all Tennessee children would receive a well-being check.
But some lawmakers argued the guidance and even efforts by school districts was an overreach.
State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, said the House education committee was informed of the program Thursday.
“We firmly oppose this type of data collection and overreach by the state government,” Cepicky wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. “We are working right now to get a repeal of this program. This mandate from the government coming in and talking to our children is totally unacceptable and I will work to oppose any form of this program being forced on our children and families. If you are asked to participate in this program please let me know.”
State Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Crosby, also said many parents were unhappy with the guidance in a Facebook post Friday.
“Many of you have reached out to me about the government overreach on the wellness checks for our children. Parents aren’t happy with the government intrusion and school districts aren’t happy with the mandates,” Faison wrote. “Please know that the vast majority of the TN Legislature agrees and this program will be seriously dialed back. The program will not move forward the way it was put out yesterday.”
Faison told The Tennessean he was worried the original guidance gave more power to local school districts to check in on families than even the Department of Children’s Services.
“If there’s a child who is supposed to be in school and they’re not showing up and you can’t get on the phone with anyone, obviously we believe that DCS needs to check into that, we don’t want any child being hurt,” Faison said. “But we’ve got trained professionals in the Department of Children Services and that falls into their purview.”
The 38-member task force held an emergency meeting Friday afternoon to discuss feedback and revisions, according to Tennessee Department of Education officials.
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In her letter, Schwinn noted that the department would craft an “improved toolkit to provide districts with the information they need to a dress the needs of those at-risk students.”
“Historically, teacher, staff and providers of school-based services have provided critical support and intervention for students because they see Tennessean children in their classrooms everyday,” Schwinn said. “There are students in our state that are homeless, without parental engagement or may be living in abusive situations, and the Governor would like us to provide some information or resources of school districts to aid in their outreach specifically for these students only.”
Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.