Students across Tennessee are returning to school this week as many districts reopen. Not all students will return to the classroom though, some like Metro Nashville Public Schools students will learn virtually instead.
As school districts across the state grapple with reopening schools and how to handle confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff, the Tennessee Department of Education has launched a dashboard to track school closings.
The dashboard will provide information on each of the state’s more than 140 school districts, including the date of the district’s first day of school and whether students are learning in person, remotely or a mix of both.
“As districts have changes throughout the year, (the dashboard) will be updated automatically. Families and community members looking for information on the opening of schools can do that in a very transparent and public way,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said during a news briefing with Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday.
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A preliminary check of the dashboard by The Tennessean found at least six of eight school districts with inaccurate information, though.
Department officials noted that the date the district’s information was last updated is provided and the dashboard will be updated weekly.
The move for transparency comes as Lee’s administration has gotten pressure to release data on reported COVID-19 cases in the state’s schools. Though this dashboard will not include any information on confirmed cases, Lee announced last week that the state is working on a plan to track and provide such information.
The governor’s comments came just days after officials with the state Education Department and the Department of Health said the agencies would not ask for or collect data on the number of cases and deaths at each school.
How schools and districts notify families of reported cases also still varies. The Education Department released some guidance in partnership with the Health Department this summer, including two decision-making flow charts for administrators on when to close classrooms or school buildings, but it has not provided guidance on whether to report such information publicly.
In Putnam County Schools, where 22 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, the district has also created its own dashboard — but this dashboard tracks the COVID-19 cases reported at specific schools and how many students and staff members are currently being quarantined in the district.
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Schwinn and Lee have previously noted that districtwide school closings will be rare and occur only in the most extreme cases as the state has also pressured schools to reopen in person.
When asked about how districts should be communicating with families Tuesday, Schwinn mentioned protocols that the department had recommended to districts and said most districts that have reopened and grappled with reported cases already have followed expected protocols so far.
The department also released guidance for school districts to use to conduct child well-being checks this fall and if or when schools are closed again.
Schwinn has argued that the classroom is the best place for children due to the negative social and emotional impacts not being in school can have on students.
Most educators agree and even in Metro Nashville Public Schools, where students will be learning remotely at home until at least Labor Day, educators are spending the first two weeks of the year checking in with students and ensuring their needs outside of academics are being met.
The child well-being toolkit is the second action from the state’s COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force that Lee charged the department to create in June.
“The Child Wellbeing Task Force will work to ensure that the needs of Tennessee children are met during and after extended periods away from school, and to empower local communities to meaningfully engage in ways that support child wellbeing,” Schwinn said in a statement at the time. “I am encouraged by these dedicated individuals from across the state who have stepped up to serve.”
The task force released a preliminary report outlining the impacts school closures last spring had on Tennessee’s children in July. Read the task force’s full report here.
Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY Network – Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
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