School board to vote on asking state for more COVID-19 flexibility

The Sumner County Board of Education will vote Tuesday to ask the state to allow them to transition to remote and/or hybrid learning, if necessary, during COVID-19.

After closing the district’s 49 schools last week due to COVID-19, the Sumner County Board of Education will likely vote on Tuesday to ask state legislators to reinstate some of the flexibility they had during the previous school year with hybrid and remote learning.

Director of Schools Dr. Del Phillips presented a resolution to school board members during a study session on Sept. 7.

The resolution urges the Tennessee General Assembly and the state Board of Education to reinstate some flexibility for local school boards to transition districts to hybrid or remote learning for a short, specified period of time in order to combat any future variants or surges of COVID-19.

Although both hybrid and remote learning were used by Sumner County Schools briefly last year, a new state law doesn’t allow entire districts to transition to the learning models this school year. State Commissioner Penny Schwinn has said that individual schools may be allowed to request the virtual option temporarily if they can document a need related to COVID-19.

The resolution also urges the bodies to immediately create legislation and rules that waive inclement weather days when they’re used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Sumner County Schools used four stockpile, or inclement weather days when it closed Sept. 7-10 due to a high rate of community spread of the coronavirus.

The school district has 13 stockpile days total – two of which may be used for administrative functions. The district has used one of those days for teacher training. The district now has eight remaining inclement weather days.

“If we run out of days because of a tough winter, we would have to extend the school year,” Phillips explained to school board members. “It’s important to go ahead and ask our delegation to waive the days [we] use for mitigation only if we’ve used all of our allowable days.”

Phillips said the district would like for the state to waive those days immediately, but that will only happen if the legislature goes back in session before January. House Republicans have asked Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session in order to address several issues related to COVID-19, but so far that hasn’t happened.

The director also said he’d like to see the state allow the same learning options that it allowed last year, noting the school district started off on a hybrid schedule last year and briefly used remote learning as a tool.

“Certainly, I feel like the overwhelming majority of our parents and our teachers and students want to be in school… And certainly, I think that’s what we want as well,” he said. “We just don’t have the same tools to use this year as we did last year.”

Several school board members expressed support for the resolution.

“One of my biggest disappointments is to some degree the state has taken our legs out from under us,” said District 4 School Board member Sarah Andrews.

“For 18 months we’ve talked about nothing but student learning loss. And yet I feel like we did do a great job last year – keeping them in person as much as possible… To only have the option of using inclement weather days when no instruction can happen is incredibly frustrating and to some degree a slap in the face to our teachers,” she said. “They have worked their tails off.”

Given the different variants of the virus, the issue is a long-term one, said District 5 School Board member Jeff Duncan.

“We need to have options in the coming years, not just next year, not just this year,” he said. “And that’s something I would like to have the state look at — how to mitigate this in the coming years.”

House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) says he’s open to considering the school board’s resolution should it pass next week.

However, he says Gov. Lee and state Republicans have made their preference for in-person learning very clear.

“Our preference is that they do everything they can to keep kids in school,” he said.

Lamberth, who has two children in Sumner County Schools, said the district has done a good job of balancing in-person learning with keeping kids safe.

“I think Sumner County has done a good job educating our children,” he said. “I think they’re doing it better than anybody in the state.”

The Sumner County Board of Education will vote on the resolution at its meeting on Sept. 21.

For the first time this school year, the number of COVID-19 cases reported among students and staff in Sumner County Schools is available online thanks to a Tennessee Department of Education’s COVID-19 dashboard that went live on Tuesday.

There were 35 new cases of COVID-19 reported among Sumner County Schools students and 38 new staff cases last week, according to the dashboard. That’s the number of COVID-19-positive students and staff reported to the school district last week who remain in isolation this week, according to Sumner County Schools Spokesman Jeremy Johnson.

For more information about the Tennessee Department of Education COVID-19 dashboard, go to: