BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (April 2) — As Thursday night’s virtual meeting of the Weakley County School Board got underway, Director of Schools Randy Frazier gave an update regarding the School Department’s response to school closings due to COVID-19.
The big news revealed by Director Frazier is the possibility schools might not reconvene for the 2019-2020 school year.
“The State Board of Education is calling an emergency meeting next Thursday at 2:00 p.m.,” Frazier said. He stated the board members will be provided with a link to join in the meeting via the internet.
The Tennessee State Board of Education is a ten-member, governor-appointed and legislatively confirmed board charged under the law with rulemaking and policymaking for K-12 education. Through a close partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, the Board maintains oversight in K-12 implementation and academic standards.
“I anticipate that we’ll hear in the next few days that we are closing school for the rest of the year,” Frazier said.
“The questions I’m getting and probably you all are getting are probably going to be addressed in that meeting next week.” He mentioned one of the requirements that will probably be altered is the number of days students are required to attend school each year.
House Bill 2818 also grants the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, Dr. Penny Schwinn, the authority to waive the 180-day attendance requirement for K-12 public school students. The new legislation also waives the civics test requirement for high school seniors on track to graduate in 2020.
“There will be no testing in our state this year,” Frazier said. “Teacher evaluations, school accountability will be suspended for one year.”
He noted teacher licenses that expired in the fall of 2020 will be extended to August 2021.
Current educator preparation rules require student teachers to obtain 15 weeks of classroom teaching time. However, school closures across the state may prohibit teacher candidates from completing these requirements.
“New teachers that are coming onboard from universities, that have not been able to take their exit exams or whatever certification tests they are required to get a license, will be waived for one year.” Frazier said. “As we start looking at hiring teachers for next year, we’ll be hiring teachers on waivers. It’s not that they are not qualified, but because they were unable to take their tests.”
He stated another topic sure to be addressed by the State Board of Education is grading. He mentioned there are three or four options on the table being considered. One is to count student’s grades according to what their average was at the end of the first semester. A second option is to count the grades as of March 23, 2020, which was the last day schools were open in Tennessee and calculate those grades with the first semester to come up with an average. A third option is having a “pass or fail” grade for students.
Devising a method to determine students’ grade point averages will also be considered.
Frazier stated another controversial matter will be graduation. “The law clearly states that no student will be punished academically due to closure,” he said. “If they were eligible to graduate on March 23, and their grades were in good shape, they should be able to graduate, even if they do not return to school.” This would also apply to students moving from a lower to higher grade (such as 3rd to 4th grade).
Another issue raised by Frazier involves borderline students, who were trying to get their grades up in order to graduate from high school when schools closed. He stated, after the State Board of Education decides what to do, the Weakley County School System will be reaching out to seniors to help them pull up their grades, so they can graduate. He noted this may be done using technology. Frazier said if the students can earn at least a 70 it will be enough for them to graduate.
In addition, he expressed his concern for the graduates that they have the opportunity to attend graduation ceremonies and enjoy the family celebrations, just like graduates in previous years have done. He said these things may be in jeopardy.
During a question and answer period, School Board Chairman Steve Vantrease stated, in some areas, students are allowed to graduate with the grades they have, unless they wish to improve their grades. He explained they may wish to complete additional work to have a better chance of receiving scholarships, which are highly competitive. Additionally, Vantrease asked about the possibility of extending the school year for any type of remediation. He also mentioned holding graduation ceremonies later this summer.
Frazier stated some of the other school districts in Tennessee are allowing students to do extra homework to improve their grades. He said some school systems are sending large packets of work and telling the students, if they complete the work and turn it back in, they will receive credit for it. However, Frazier said, “Sending work home has resulted in a lot of negative criticism. The validity of the work being completed by the person you send it to is sometimes called into question. Plus, it may not be possible to provide this option to all students, since some might not have access to the internet. I’m not sure, unless the State mandates that, we can fairly do something that would allow everyone to improve their grades. When it comes to credit recovery, the highest grade those students can make is a 70, which is the minimum requirement.”
Regarding the possibility of having Summer School, Frazier stated that it will depend on the status of the COVID-19 health crisis. “I would favor that,” he said. “It would be a best case scenario.”
Frazier said Weakley County’s budget for the current fiscal year is in good shape. But, he is uncertain about the 2020-2021 school year, since the amount of funding received depends on the average daily membership (ADM) of students. “The State will probably take an average of attendance throughout the year, or they may pick a month and say, at the end of the first semester we’ll count that for the academic year.”
He mentioned that local sales tax revenue may also be down in the coming budget year, due to the high unemployment caused by the current pandemic. “Hopefully, if those revenues are down, we’ll be eligible for stimulus loans from the federal government.”
As for hosting graduation ceremonies later this year, Frazier said he would be totally in favor of doing so. He stated graduation ceremonies could possibly take place in June or July.
According to Frazier, a survey sent out from the State asks the question, “How does your district plan to make up for the learning lost during this closure?” The four options listed are:
1. During the summer of 2020
2. During the Summer of 2021
3. Extending the school days in 2021
4. Extending the school year in 2021
Frazier stated he plans on responding to the survey by choosing “Other” because there may not be funding available to pay for the additional time teachers would have to work. Additionally, he said, “I’m not so sure the gap in learning is going to be as big as the general public thinks it is. We missed school on March 24, which is three days before Spring Break. We were in the middle of getting ready for our vacation. If we had not been out due to COVID-19, we would have returned the first of April. At that point, we were just cramming for TNReady end of course test and all of those exit exams we expect our students to do, and we are held accountable for. We spend the first two weeks of that month getting ready for those exams, and then we spend two weeks taking tests.” He noted the day-to-day pattern is interrupted for April because of these tests. In May there are 14 instructional days, during this time, a lot of the enrichment activities, such as field trips and other curricular events normally take place.
“We know there is going to be some gap when we come back, but I have enough confidence in our teachers that they will do things to get everything back on track,” Frazier said. He stated if there are students that are still lagging behind, they will have the option of attending Summer School in 2021.
As Frazier concluded his remarks, he stated everyone needs to be mindful of social distancing. He also expressed gratitude to local medical professionals for what they are doing during the current medical crisis.
BY DAVID FISHER