Gov. Bill Lee is calling for the temporary suspension of negative consequences for Tennessee schools and teachers related to student tests for the current school year due to adjustments and disruptions to learning caused by the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
The Republican governor said Friday that while student testing will continue, he wants to "alleviate any burdens" associated with teacher evaluations and school accountability for the 2020-2021 school year.
Lee said school districts missed critical learning time when in-person classes were suspended during the spring as the virus pandemic struck. While some districts started holding in-person classes when the current school year started several weeks ago, others have maintained online learning only.
Some teachers and school district administrators have called for cancellation of tests or suspension of accountability measures. Teacher pay can be influenced by teacher evaluation scores, and poorly performing schools can be moved under state control.
Lee said he will work with the Tennessee General Assembly on his call to "temporarily pause the accountability that we have in our state that ties student testing to teacher evaluations."
In Tennessee, students take TNReady tests in math, English language arts, social studies, and science. They also take part in other types of assessments under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, which has been the state's testing program since 1988.
"In spite of the fact that we need to have assessment, it will have to look different this year to reflect really the fact that both teachers and students have had extended time away," Lee said during an online news conference.
School districts have had virus cases after in-person instruction resumed. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn reported Friday that Tennessee schools have seen 255 additional cases among students and an increase of 179 cases for staff this week.
Lee, who spoke to reporters from Nashville, also addressed the recent rise in virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Tennessee, including in rural counties.
The 10 Tennessee counties with the most new cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks each have a population less than 40,000. Pickett County, with a population of more than 5,000 people and 87 cases in the past two weeks, has the highest rate.
State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Wednesday that the COVID-19 rural death rate is double that of urban areas. And over the last month or so, the average age of someone infected in Tennessee rose by at least 10 years to 43 years old, she said.
As of Thursday, Tennessee had the 13th most new confirmed cases per capita in the past 14 days among all states, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new confirmed cases in Tennessee has risen from 1,347 on Sept. 30 to 1,869 on Wednesday. The state reported more than 2,200 new cases Thursday. The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Tennessee was 5.51% on Sept. 30; it grew to 7.22% as of Wednesday.
Lee has lifted restrictions on businesses throughout the state, but he said it was difficult to pinpoint why cases have risen in rural areas. He encouraged individuals to wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distancing guidelines, but he has resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate.
"We are concerned," Lee said. "We certainly try to look for reasons that may be attached to case rise, but we think the most important thing is that we continue to communicate with people that, they alone, individually, have the most opportunity to mitigate the spread of the virus."
Lee has not ruled out putting restrictions back in place, but he added that "massive shutdowns" may not be beneficial.
"There's never anything off the table," he said. "Any data that comes in, it will cause us to consider what is the next move that we should make."
Lee also said he and his wife Maria have tested negative for COVID-19 and are not experiencing symptoms after being exposed to the virus earlier in the week.