Virtual learning, teacher pay big topics on first day of Tennessee special legislative session

Updated: Jan. 19, 2021 at 6:45 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A proposed pay increase for teachers and sharp criticism for school districts operating virtually.

Those were just two of the headlines from the first day of a special legislative session on education in Tennessee.

State lawmakers are considering several bills to address issues created or made worse by the pandemic.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called the special session for this week because he says these problems cannot wait for solutions.

“I’ve found there has been no greater place for COVID-19 to cause disruption, sweeping disruption than in our K-12 education system,” Lee told a joint session of lawmakers on Tuesday.

Lee wants lawmakers to address issues like learning loss, student literacy, accountability and teacher pay during the special session.

The governor is pushing proposals to address each one.

On learning loss, the governor says students are doing worse in reading and math because many spent a big chunk away from their classroom last year.

He praised districts that had returned students to classrooms and criticized those that haven’t.

“I commend those districts and those local leaders and those educators, for not settling for the path of least resistance and hiding behind month after month of virtual learning, with no end in sight,” said Lee.

While he didn’t name any names, the governor pointed out that 145 of 147 school districts had returned students to the classroom.

Shelby County Schools is one of the districts that remains all-virtual.

“You can’t say ‘Follow the science’ and keep schools closed,” said Lee. “You can’t say ‘I believe in public education’ and keep schools closed, and you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed.”

In response, SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray released this statement:

“Watching state leaders call for in-person learning on the state legislature’s virtual video meeting today sends a mixed and hypocritical message. We invite state leaders to step away from privileged podiums and try to understand the many concerns of our students, parents and teachers. Across the nation, the tragic toll of this unprecedented pandemic continues to disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities. In Memphis and Shelby County, and in other urban areas in America, nearly everyone knows someone who has been seriously ill or died from COVID-19. It is disingenuous to think that the children of poor families need any less protection than children in other settings. We will continue to follow science and encourage others to review the impact of mask mandates while we wait for vaccines to be prioritized for educators.”

The governor wants lawmakers to approve after-school and summer learning camps.

He wants to emphasize teaching students to read through phonics.

Lee says while testing should continue, to get an accurate picture of how students are doing, students, teachers and districts should not face any negative consequences.

On teacher pay, the governor is pushing for a 4% increase, with 2% now, 2% later.

But Beth Brown, the president of the Tennessee Education Association, said teachers worked an average of 13 extra hours each week last semester, beyond what’s required of them and deserve more.

“What the administration is proposing is pennies to the dollar, pennies to the dollar beyond the time educators have spent beyond their contracted workday in order to continue to provide critical services for students,” said Brown.

Brown says teachers deserve a bonus for all the extra hours they worked, along with a 10% raise.

“The proposed $43 million in one-time teacher salary funds is far lower than what the state can afford and far less than what educators have earned and deserve,” said Brown.

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