If local officials decide on emergency school closures in the future, Tennessee’s governor may have the power to override them. This, according to a bill recommended for passage by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Its companion bill in the House was passed on first consideration on Monday, gaining a little progress since its filing last month.
The bill would also grant all local education authorities (LEAs) with the sole power to open or close schools during an emergency as defined by the Tennessee Code. However, if the governor, local health board, or public health official were to issue orders to the contrary, then the LEA’s decision would be nullified. The bill also noted that the governor’s authority would supersede the authority of local health boards and public health officials.
State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) first introduced the bill, followed by State Representative Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville). In previous reporting by The Tennessee Star, Kelsey made it clear that local boards of education should be the ultimate decision makers on how to operate their schools.
The last LEA in the state to offer any variant of in-person learning was Shelby County Schools (SCS). Kelsey claimed that the district pushed back its reopening date, originally planned for February 8, “purely out of spite [and] political [motivations].”
“Students need to be back in the classroom, and parents need to be able to make the best choice for their children,” stated Kelsey. “With this legislation, I offer protection for municipal school districts who have been unable to execute safe reopening plans based on scientific guidelines due to pressure from unelected local health boards.”
Today, my fellow members of the Senate Education Committee voted to advance my legislation giving school boards more independence regarding whether their schools should be open or closed during a public emergency. https://t.co/Wnw89yqj8d
— Brian Kelsey (@BrianKelsey) February 10, 2021
After Kelsey’s bill progressed through the Senate, SCS suddenly announced a reopening plan on Friday. SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray had announced as recently as February 4 that the district had no set plans for reopening.
Then on Friday, Ray requested that all school staff return to in-person teaching on February 22.
Students in grades Pre-K – 5 will return March 1, and students in grades 6-12 will return March 8. Students with disabilities or in self-contained classrooms will return within their grade bands.
— Dr. Joris M. Ray (@SCSSuptRay) February 12, 2021
Ray alluded that the increased vaccine availability served as the “greatest signal of hope.” Ray’s remarks followed President Joe Biden’s announcement on Thursday that enough vaccines to administer to all Americans would be available shortly.
When I took office three weeks ago, America didn’t have a plan or enough supplies to vaccinate most of the country. But my team got right to work, and as of today, we’ve increased weekly vaccine shipments by nearly 30% and purchased enough vaccines to vaccinate all Americans.
— President Biden (@POTUS) February 12, 2021
Kelsey’s spokespersons were unable to obtain a comment from the senator by press time.
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