(The Center Square) – The Tennessee Senate approved legislation Monday evening that would allow Gov. Bill Lee to order schools to offer in-person learning.
Senate Bill 103, by Germantown Republican Sen. Brain Kelsey and Collierville Republican Rep. Kevin Vaughan, would authorize the governor to issue an executive order requiring all schools statewide to offer in-person learning.
Kelsey proposed the bill in response to outcry from Shelby County parents and students as schools had remained closed for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate approved the bill Monday in a party-line vote, 27-5. It now will be considered by the House.
In recent weeks, Tennessee’s last two school districts to offer only virtual learning options – Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools – have announced plans to return to in-classroom learning.
Nashville students began a phased-in return to classrooms earlier this month. Shelby County Schools announced students will begin returning to classrooms beginning March 1.
“Every Tennessee family deserves the choice of in-person learning,” Kelsey said in a statement. “We have many students, especially low-income students, who are struggling this year and falling behind their peers. No one is saying that the governor should force students back into an atmosphere which they feel is unsafe. For those parents who want their children back into school, let’s follow the science, and the science says it’s safe.”
New guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 12 urged schools to reopen “safely and as soon as possible … to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services.”
During the Senate debate, the measure received some pushback from members of the Democratic caucus, who argued the bill overrides local control of pandemic response.
“The Shelby County school superintendent is not operating in a vacuum,” said Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis. “He relies on safety rules. He relies on medical experts. He relies on the science. … But the reason we allow him to make those decisions is because he knows better than most what his particular county needs. It’s local control, which I think a lot of us have stated in here before that we believe in.”
Kelsey’s bill also allows schools to have the sole authority to choose to remain open or closed in the case of a public emergency, except in the case of a statewide order from the governor.
Schools in the Memphis suburb of Collierville released a reopening plan last fall based on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The reopening plan was not supported by the Shelby County Health Department.
“This bill puts the power back where it needs to be, and that is with the elected officials, because it is their responsibility to weigh all of the different factors into this decision making process,” Kelsey said.