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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.

Nashville Tennessean

Lawmakers on Tuesday grilled Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn while hearing from educators about the state’s response to reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schwinn along with Sara Morrison, executive director of the State Board of Education and seven superintendents from across the state, appeared before the Tennessee House Education Committee for its annual summer study session, with higher education officials slated to appear Wednesday.

Schwinn, who has faced some vocal critics from conservative activists ahead of this week’s hearing, started off explaining the Tennessee Department of Education’s response and the support it provided to school districts when schools closed this spring and in anticipation of reopening this fall. She then fielded questions from lawmakers about funding, curriculum adoption, literacy and even her stance on education savings accounts and school vouchers. 

“As you heard from superintendents over the past couple of hours, no one has done this before,” Schwinn said, characterizing the department’s support this spring as “crisis management.”

But ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, concerns about Schwinn’s policy initiatives have been brewing for months, including outrage over her goals for the department, the failed rollout of a child well-being check program and speculation that lawmakers might seek a “no confidence” vote on the commissioner.

PREVIOUSLY: House to hold special hearing on school return as legislators, conservative activists raise concerns about Commissioner Schwinn

MORE: Gov. Bill Lee confident in Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s leadership amid department turnover

‘Trust between you and this committee’

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, one of Schwinn’s top critics on the committee, chided her for a series of “missteps.” He suggested she may need to attend monthly meetings with the committee.

“There has to be trust between you and this committee. We have to know that philosophically we’re on the same page trying to move forward. There has to be cooperation between us, you and Gov. (Bill) Lee,” Cepicky said. “There’s a million kids who are depending on us to get it right.”

He specifically mentioned the child well-being check program, which the department has since walked back after some lawmakers understood it to include checks on non-public schoolchildren, calling it government overreach.

“That document should have never seen the light of day,” Cepicky said, noting that Lee had quickly opposed it and that “his people … said they’d never seen the document before it was sent out.”

“You are the commissioner of education. The buck stops with you,” he said.

As Cepicky listed his qualms, Schwinn could be heard verbally indicating that she understood.

“As we move forward, I am constantly evaluating you and when we get back, if I’m fortunate to come here in the 112th (General Assembly), the decisions that we make in this committee I think will be a direct reflection of what you do between now and then in building the trust, the philosophy together and the cooperation with our committee,” he said.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn interacts with Anna Foley, 7, during a visit to Forest Hill Elementary School on Wednesday, Sept 2, 2020.  (Photo: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, also questioned the commissioner that despite her and Lee pressuring schools to reopen in-person, the majority of students in the state-run Achievement School District are currently learning virtually.

Parkinson represents North Memphis and many ASD schools are located in the city. Shelby County Schools, the largest school district in the state, is among a handful of districts — including Metro Nashville Public Schools — that opted to begin the school year virtually, despite the state’s pressure to reopen classrooms as soon as possible. 

“Both yourself and the governor have said the best place for students to learn is in the classroom,” Parkinson said. “Y’all have a position on physical learning but yet your own district is not [following it].”

RELATED: Schwinn’s former chief of schools sues Tennessee for $1.5 million over firing

The state-run Tennessee School for the Deaf and Tennessee School for the Blind are in-person, according to Schwinn, but many of the ASD schools rely on local school districts for transportation and food programs and therefore might adjust based on the local district’s decisions. 

Parkinson later asked whether the state would mandate students return to in-person learning at any point, such as when the spread of COVID-19 has been further mitigated and concerns are over.

“I’m certainly not in a position speak about what could happen after COVID,” Schwinn said. “In response to the pandemic, we will continue to support local decision and I still believe children belong in the classroom.”

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn waves at students as they walk the halls during a visit to Forest Hill Elementary School on Wednesday, Sept 2, 2020. (Photo: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

Pressed on the matter again by Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, Schwinn said the education commissioner does not have the authority to make such a mandate, and it would require legislative action.

Educators discuss concerns over enrollment, testing

Many of the superintendents who spoke ahead of Schwinn during Tuesday’s more than five-hour meeting noted concerns about funding, drops in enrollment and whether students would be required to take state assessments this year — and if teachers would be impacted by their students’ performance, despite the upheavals many districts have already faced. 

Some educators have already called for the state to cancel TNReady testing, including Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray and the Metro Nashville Board of Education, but other education associations and advocates have said the state needs to know how students are performing and how much learning has been lost amid the pandemic.

Byrd asked Schwinn whether this would be another “hold harmless year” for TNReady scores. 

Schwinn declined to say, explaining that it was “action for you all to take” rather than a decision for the department.

ON TESTING: Some in Tennessee already are calling for cancellation of TNReady testing for upcoming school year

MORE: Metro Nashville school board calls on state to waive TNReady testing this school year

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, and chairman of the committee, acknowledged the legislature’s next session — and Schwinn’s job itself — would be a tough one. 

When the General Assembly returns in January, White said he believed “we’re going to be challenged like never before.”

If officials don’t “have our act really together, we’re going to stumble,” he said. “And I believe that we did stumble this year. …Some of it was due to the COVID, some of it was due to other things.”

White also complimented Schwinn, comparing her to previous education commissioners. 

“You are in a very tough position. I’ve been here 11 years. Commissioner (Kevin) Huffman went through the same thing. Commissioner (Candice) McQueen went through the same thing,” White said. “It’s a very tough position. I’ve been around you enough to know your heart is in the right place and you want to make a difference.”

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White asked Schwinn what she would recommend to lawmakers as they move into the 112th General Assembly at the beginning of the year.

“First and foremost, we need to have a very serious conversation about literacy,” Schwinn said.

Secondly, she said, the state must focus on recruiting and training teachers.

“Last year, 10,000 children did not have a credentialed math teacher — 10,000 children,” Schwinn said. “We can do better than that.”

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Reach Natalie Allison at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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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