NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Parents could be allowed to use vouchers to enroll their children in private schools if their public school district does not provide full-time in-person learning. Lawmakers led by Republicans moved the measure last week and it has gained the support of the two legislative body’s speakers.
Spiking COVID cases in Tennessee have put a strain on many school districts in the state.
“It has been a struggle this year because of the uncertainties of COVID, the sicknesses that go around, we’ve had some issue with transportation, finding bus drivers,” said Danny Weeks, Director of Dickson County Schools.
Dickson County isn’t alone in adjusting to increases in illnesses – several school districts have applied to the Department of Education for waivers to participate in virtual learning.
“Trying to provide that quality in-person education for all of our families as best we could, but as we looked at numbers toward the end of the week we discussed a plan where we thought maybe if we could go virtual today, go virtual on Monday, that would give the week for some of those illnesses, sickness to clean out,” Weeks said.
Lawmakers have opened the avenue to give parents vouchers if students are not in person for learning for at least 180 days, with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally signaling his support. Other key leaders like House Speaker Cameron Sexton are lining up to support the voucher push.
“Last year, when you had Shelby County Schools close for the entire year, and others closed for a lot longer than 180 days and those parents had no alternative to do anything with their kids than have them at home or when you have virtual schools you’re around and you’re trying to have kindergartners for eight hours a day in front of a computer, it doesn’t work,” Sexton said.
Currently, state law allows waivers for five days of remote learning.
Public school districts like Dickson County say their priority will continue to be quality in-person learning. “We still believe that the best learning takes place before a professionally certified teacher at school, so we know people have, we know even our staff have sicknesses so we make every effort to be in school,” Weeks said.
Democratic lawmakers are opposed to the voucher plan, saying no one should be punished for taking health measures during a pandemic.
“This is not what Tennessee families want and using it as punishment and threatening school systems who are doing their best to take care and keep their kids healthy and their teacher’s healthy it’s ridiculous,” Rep. Gloria Johnsons said.
Citing the COVID pandemic, a House version of the bill allows voucher eligibility for parents in any school district for three upcoming school years beginning in the fall.