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Tennessee to publish school-related COVID-19 data beginning next week

Adults sit with elementary school students at their desks while wearing masks
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn visits Libertas School of Memphis, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District on Sept. 1, 2020.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

After weeks of flip-flopping, Tennessee leaders announced Thursday that the state will begin sharing school- and district-level data next week to show the level of spread of COVID-19.

The information will be published and updated weekly by the state education department — not the health department — and will rely on reports from the state’s 147 school districts.

The announcement marked another reversal by the administration of Gov. Bill Lee, which at one point did not plan to release school-level data because of concerns about student and patient privacy.

“We believe that we have developed a reporting mechanism that will help inform parents to help them make choices” — but without compromising the privacy of infected students and staff, the governor said.

At his weekly news conference, Lee said the reporting plan is the result of weeks of talks with state attorneys and the U.S. Department of Education, as well as conversations with education leaders across Tennessee.

“It’s uncharted territory,” he said. “Most states are still grappling with this. Very few have come to a resolution.”

The department’s new online “dashboard” will provide school-by-school data on the number of new positive coronavirus cases among students and staff and whether the school has had to change its learning model as a result.

In a news release, the department said the dashboard will exclude schools with fewer than 50 students in order to protect student identities in compliance with federal student privacy law. And if a school reports under five positive or employee cases, it will list the school without a specific case number.

At the district level, the site will provide the number of new positive cases among students and staff. It also will list whether the district is primarily teaching in person or remotely and whether it has adopted a critical infrastructure designation to address shortages or anticipated shortages of teachers and other school employees.

“We believe this resource will not only help parents but will inform how COVID-19 is affecting student attendance, chronic absenteeism and overall student attainment,” said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Groups representing parents quickly praised the announcement.

“We want to keep our babies safe, so I’m quite pleased,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift. “This is what we’ve wanted all along.”

Lee’s administration has reversed course three times on what school-level data families can expect from the state. On Aug. 18, after releasing a first round of information about cases among children, the governor said his administration was working to provide details linked to schools.

The dashboard is scheduled to launch next Tuesday, and the department plans to update it each Monday by 5 p.m. Central Time.

All but two of Tennessee’s 147 school systems have started the new school year, including Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, which opened all-virtually in Memphis on Monday. Schools in Hamblen and Marion counties open next Tuesday after Labor Day.

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