Testing questions, lack of broadband and fears for low-performing kids at House hearing

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Student testing, lack of broadband and a fears for low-performing students came up Tuesday in a lengthy hearing on how Tennessee schools are doing so far with COVID-19.

Those were issues raised on the first day of a Tennessee House Education Committee hearing.

It comes as schools across Tennessee are either online or in class as there seems to be no end in sight for the pandemic.

“When we opened we had to fight fear,” said Bradley County director of schools Linda Cash. “Are we going to die?”

Those sobering words came from the head of a 10-thousand student district east of Chattanooga, but she said after taking precautions there are only a few classroom COVID-19 cases traced to Bradley County schools.

Another key point came from a lawmaker who told the committee what he’s heard from a majority of schools superintendents across the state concerning kids who do not learn easily.

“Where we have lost a year, maybe two years of education are in our lower performing students and I don’t want to wait for a report,” said Greeneville Rep. David Hawk.

Lawmakers also heard from the state board of education about a waiver that pushed back achievement tests for students because of COVID-19.

“On the waiver with all the testing at the end of year, is the board concerned with ongoing educational lapses of those students?” asked Middle Tennessee Rep. Scott Cepicky.

“I think we are still flying blind still as a state not having state tests last spring,” said Dr. Sara Morrison, who is executive director of The State Board of Education. “But I am concerned that we don’t know how bad the gaps are across the state.”

Along with student testing and an estimated half million K-12 students learning online, the issue of providing broadband to them remains critical for Tennessee’s vast rural schools systems and even in some urban districts.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn was scheduled to testify at mid-afternoon, but the hearing before lawmakers was running more than 90-minutes behind schedule.

When she did testify nearly four hours after the legislative committee began, Commissioner Schwinn recited a long list of guidance and resources her department has provided online for local school districts.

She cited things like “regular calls” to school district leaders from the department to address issues such as filling teacher vacancies. Commissioner Schwinn said $61 million dollars in federal CARES Act grants had been approved for local school districts to use as they choose along with $200 million dollars from the federal government for COVID-19 readiness to re-open. She said “best way to learn is in the classroom” especially for areas like reading.

Committee Chair Rep. Mark White said “we did stumble” in areas like more funding for early childhood literacy. Schwinn responded “we have got to get literacy right” and extra federal money in the area will help. She also cited the retention and support for teachers as key for anything lawmakers might do with education funding.

This is a developing story. Stay with News 2 and WKRN.com for updates.

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