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What to do about the Class of 2020 and other big decisions await Tennessee Board of Education as Lee signs emergency law

Tennessee high school seniors who were on track to graduate before the new coronavirus shuttered their schools should receive their diplomas on time under an emergency education bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Bill Lee.

But what does “on track” mean?

That’s among questions the State Board of Education have been considering since the legislature passed the measure last month before recessing amid a public health crisis. Lawmakers directed the policy board to revise graduation rules accordingly.

The decision will affect an estimated 71,433 students in the Class of 2020 as Tennessee works to blunt the fallout of COVID-19 on school communities.

The nine-member board will meet next week to modify graduation rules this year and enact other emergency measures in response to the virus that has closed school buildings nationwide. The special meeting will be conducted April 9 through a conference call.

The sweeping education law, which passed unanimously on March 19 as classes were being canceled statewide, removed from public schools the burden of state-mandated tests and 180 days of classroom instruction during the 2019-20 school year.

Schools are closed through at least April 24 at the governor’s urging. If the crisis continues, the shutdown is expected to be extended or the academic year ended altogether.

The law gives the state board emergency authority to address nitty-gritty policy decisions to ensure that students, teachers, and schools are not penalized because of the unprecedented disruptions. 

“Our members and staff are standing by to make this process as smooth and transparent as possible under these circumstances,” Chairman Lillian Hartgrove said in a statement.

Graduation requirements are at the top of the board’s list.

The law already waives the requirement that this year’s seniors pass a civics test to earn their diploma.

As for defining “on track” to graduate, a likely option is for the board to direct school districts to review the records of high school seniors to ensure they were in the process of accruing their remaining required credits.

“That would be a huge burden off my shoulders,” said Tyler Finley, senior class president at East High School in Memphis. “It would allow us to go ahead and prepare for graduation and life after that.”

The state board serves as a bridge between the legislature and local school boards.

“We will work to clarify expectations as set forth in the statute so that every school district understands the expectations for this unprecedented school year,” Hartgrove said.

Under the law, the board has broad authority to pass other “emergency rules” to deal with emerging challenges. Those rules, expiring in 180 days, would aim to give ongoing guidance in anticipation of reopening schools.

For instance, closures prevented this spring’s crop of student teachers from completing their required 15 weeks of classroom teaching time. With a shortage of educators across Tennessee, the board is expected to ensure that candidates will be licensed this year if they were about to complete their preparation programs. Between 3,000 and 3,500 aspiring teachers finish their training each year in Tennessee.

Other guidance will focus on how grades should be calculated due to school closures that began mid-semester. While local school systems have their own grading systems for purposes of report cards and student honors, their high schools must also follow a state grading system that’s used to determine a student’s entrance, placement, and scholarships for college.

The board is working on all of the issues in consultation with Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and groups representing superintendents, teachers, school boards, higher education, and Tennessee’s administrator for financial aid.

“There are a lot of pieces in motion right now at the state board,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Tullos. “We’re trying to expedite the most immediate needs at the April 9th meeting and may not be able to answer everything at that time.”

The next regular meeting is scheduled for May 29.