A bill filed Monday will give Tennessee school boards the ultimate decision-making authority about whether their schools should be open or closed during a public emergency.
The filing of the legislation was accompanied by an announcement from the bill’s sponsors, Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Representative Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville).
“Mandated directives should only come from elected leaders who are accountable to the people they serve,” said Kelsey, who has served on the Senate Education Committee, in a statement about the legislation.
“Our school boards, administrators, teachers and parents are equipped to make informed decisions on how to keep our schools safe by utilizing guidance from organizations such as local health boards.”
The legislation allows local boards of education to consult with state and local health departments when deciding whether to open or close.
Vaughan, who has served on the Collierville Board of Education and the House Education Committee, said, “This bill seeks to clarify that duly elected local school boards are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to the operation of their schools.”
“Other agencies, such as local health departments may be consulted for their perspectives, but ultimately, the schools, students, and staff are the responsibility of the local education authority.”
SB0103 references the title and chapter of Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.) that deals with disasters, emergencies and civil defense under which Governor Bill Lee has issued nearly four dozen executive orders since March mainly for the purpose of facilitating the containment of COVID-19.
The proposal by Kelsey and Vaughan adds new sections to Title 49 of the T.C.A. dealing with Education in order to give the local boards of education the sole authority to open or close a school to in-person learning and instruction during an emergency.
An emergency, as defined in T.C.A. 58-2-101 (7), is any natural, technological, or civil emergency that causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to result in a declaration of a state emergency by a county, the governor, or the president of the United States.
If, however, the governor were to issue a statewide executive order requiring schools to be open for in-person learning and instruction, the governor’s statewide order would supersede that of the local school board.
The legislation would also give the same decision-making authority to the governing bodies of the state’s public charter schools and would go into effect upon becoming law.
The 112th Tennessee General Assembly opens at noon on Tuesday.
In late December, Governor Lee called for a special legislative session on January 19 to specifically address urgent issues facing Tennessee students and schools in the 2021-22 school year, caused by COVID-19.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.