MEMPHIS, Tenn. — UPDATE (2/22/21):
The full Senate approved legislation Monday giving Tennessee’s governor the authority to issue an Executive Order requiring all schools to offer in-person learning.
SB 103 was sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
“This is a victory for students and parents as every Tennessee family deserves the choice of in-person learning,” said Sen. Kelsey. “Allowing students to return to the classroom is long overdue as we have many students, especially low-income students, who are struggling this year and falling behind their peers. No one is saying that the governor should force students back into an atmosphere which they feel is unsafe. For those parents who want their children back into school, let’s follow the science, and the science says it’s safe.”
The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville), now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Opponents argue the bill gives the governor too much power over local districts like Shelby County.
“This bill would send a message to those school districts to listen to parents, follow the science and fully reopen our schools,” said Kelsey.
Kelsey said he wants what’s best for parents and students.
In his bill, he gives school board members more control over if schools can be open or closed during a pandemic or public emergency but there’s a catch: the governor can issue a state-wide order requiring schools to offer an in-person learning option.
During the Senate floor session, Kelsey called out Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville public schools for not reopening yet, even though there is a plan in place for the districts to return to school.
“As all of you know, we had every school district in the state open for months except for two and those two are not fully open to in-person instruction,” said Kelsey.
Several, including, State Senator Sara Kyle of Memphis questioned his intentions.
“I think that we need to rely on local control, those on the ground with the different population than most other counties, and again I think that the science is going to dictate what needs to be done and who can do that better than those closest to my population in Shelby County, therefore, I won’t be supporting this bill,” said Kyle.
Others agree, like Keith Williams with the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.
“It’s bordering on being an outright dictatorship,” said Williams. “Why do you want that kind of power? You have enough power running the state, you don’t need to try to run the local school systems. There are people in place for that.”
Despite a few arguments, the bill passed 27 to 5 and now moves on to the State House of Representatives for consideration.
Kelsey emphasizes if the bill is passed and becomes law, the governor wouldn’t be forcing students back in the classroom. It’s only offering an in-person learning option if a state of emergency is declared.
“It’s important to set the record straight and to make sure these laws are in the place moving forward,” said Kelsey. “We’ve had some students who lost a whole year’s worth of academic gains, some of them have and these elected officials are the ones in a position to weigh the factors and make the decision.”
FOX13 asked Shelby County Schools about their stance on the bill.
A spokesperson said from the very beginning SCS planned on reopening schools when it is safe. The spokesperson said because of COVID-19 the district needed to announce delays.
An education bill that gives Tennessee’s governor the power to reopen schools for in-person learning is moving to the Senate floor. This would allow the governor’s decision to override SCS’s decision to delay in-person learning.
There were heated discussions about the Senate bill that could force school districts, like Shelby County Schools, to include an in-person learning option, but it passed anyway and now moves a step closer to law.
“It’s been hard for us to juggle staying at home with our kids and focus on their education as well as trying to run a business,” said an SCS parent named Clarissa.
State Senator Brian Kelsey invited Clarissa to speak at the Senate Education Committee to prove his point: that virtual learning is difficult for parents and students.
To make a change, Senator Kelsey decided to propose a Senate bill that allows the Governor to override SCS’s decision to remain virtual.
“It is purely out of spite that they are keeping these schools closed, purely out of spite,” said Senator Kelsey. “It’s purely political. They are listening to the teachers’ union and not to the parents.”
Everyone voted in favor of the bill except State Senator Raumesh Akbari from Memphis.
She fired back, saying SCS delayed in-person learning to keep its students and teachers safe.
“In my district, I have a tremendous amount of homes where there are children who are going home to older grandparents who could potentially get sick and die,” said Senator Akbari.
Kelsey argued back, saying there is a safe way to allow students and teachers back in the building, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
“My message is very clear,” said Kelsey. “Let’s listen to the parents - the parents who want their children in school. Let’s follow the science - the science said it’s safe.”
Parents like Clarissa are begging for an in-person learning option so she can focus on her business and her children’s future.
“They need to be supervised, and it’s not easy for them to be focused, so one of us needs to be home,” said Clarissa.
FOX13 reached out to SCS about Senator Kelsey’s comments.
An SCS spokesperson said it would continue to work with the school board to make sure students and teachers are safe.
The president of the United Education Association, the teachers union, tells FOX13 Senator Kelsey’s remarks create mistrust and are counter-productive.
Cox Media Group