Gov. Lee reportedly asks education dept. to withdraw child well-being check initiative

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Tennessee Department of Education is back to the drawing board for a $1 million initiative created to help ensure the needs of children are being met while learning remotely.

The initiative was released Aug. 11, but on Friday, TDOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn sent a letter to lawmakers stating Gov. Bill Lee asked the department to remove the guidance on the plans for the child well-being checks.

“Although well-intentioned, we have missed the mark on communication and providing clarity around our role in supporting at-risk students during an unprecedented time. Governor Lee has asked our department to remove this guidance document and go back to the drawing board so we get this right,” the letter stated.

According to the press release about the initial program, the Child Wellbeing Task Force would coordinate efforts with a district designee and regional staff hired for the well-being checks to participate in “monthly child wellbeing calls and report on the completion of child wellbeing checks for students zoned within the local community.”

Schwinn’s letter mentioned lawmakers were contacted by concerned constituents and local educators about the toolkit TDOE provided it implement the child well-being check initiative.

“I want to assure you that we recognize the concerns that you and your constituents share, and we realize why those concerns exist. Our goal is to provide districts with the tools needed to safely open schools, and we do not want to distract from that with any sense that we are straying from our mission to first and foremost, educate students. I also acknowledge the vast difference between
providing support for vulnerable students as opposed to any potential overreach into what parents determine is best for their children,” Schwinn wrote in the letter.

Schwinn also stated in the letter that historically, teachers, staff and other organizations working closely with students were able to report if a child needed additional support or were struggling because those students were in the classrooms every day.

“There are students in our state that are homeless, without parental engagement or may be living in abusive situations, and the Governor would like us to provide some information or resources to
school districts to aid in their outreach specifically for these students only,” Schwinn wrote.

According to the letter, the program will continue, but the Task Force and TDOE will ‘craft an improved toolkit’ so resources can be provided when the need arises.

Although the program was put on hold, Abbey Frye, a social worker with the Anderson County School district, said her district has been performing well-being checks and continued to do so even when classes were forced to go online due to the pandemic.

“If Joe’s virtual, then he’s going to chime in virtually and say ‘I’m here.’ And if he doesn’t show up for his virtual class, just like he doesn’t show up in person, then he’s marked absent. And then we kind of know (to ask), ‘hey, what’s going on? Do you not have good internet connection? What can we do? Is your Chromebook not working? We can quickly assess when somebody needs something,” Frye said.

Frye said that if a student doesn’t show up for class and they haven’t heard from the family in a couple of days, she will call the parents to check in.

“Usually that works, but if we couldn’t get a hold of a parent, then we just go out to their house and that usually works. They’re happy to see us and we are more than happy to help and get resources any way that we can,” Frye said.

She said even with the virtual class option, students check in one way or another ever day.

Frye said when the pandemic first shut down schools in March, teachers had a running tally of students, who they knew from prior experience, might need additional help so they would call and check in.

She said the reasons students struggle differ.

“More so lately it’s anxiety–a lot–and getting through that. And sometimes that’s just anxiety that like, ‘I’ve worn the same clothes for four days and I need clothes.’ We have clothing closets in Anderson County schools, so we get that out. We have shoes…and sometimes it’s ‘I didn’t get to eat dinner last night,'” Frye said.

Frye said when she ends up going to a student’s house to check in, parents don’t have concerns about privacy.

In fact, she said, parents often welcome the visit.

“I’m not going in their house. I’m not searching their belongings. It’s not my intentions to go through your house. If you want to invite me into your house, I would be more than happy. But a lot of times, especially, especially right now during this pandemic, we stay outside. We keep our distance, we keep our masks on, we follow the protocols at each house that we would follow in school,” Frye said.

She said extra funding from the state to help with the Anderson County School district’s effort to make sure students have what they need to succeed would be welcomed.

“Even funding you know for extra social workers and counselors to go out and do these well-visits, and um, yeah. I think it would be great. More hands on deck,” Frye said.

The Anderson County School district would not comment on the state’s child well-being check program proposal.

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