NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMC) - A bill that could force Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person learning is a step closer to becoming law.
The bill by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, advanced after a vote in the Senate education committee on Wednesday.
It would give Governor Bill Lee and future governors the authority to order schools to reopen for in-person learning during an emergency like a pandemic.
Kelsey says he hopes it would be used to force Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person classes if the district doesn’t do so on its own.
“The CDC says it’s safe...and yet here we are in Tennessee with one of our 147 school districts which is absolutely refusing to listen to parents who want to return their children to in-person learning,” said Kelsey.
On Wednesday, Kelsey went after Shelby County Schools leaders for not reopening for in-person learning.
“It is purely out of spite that they are keeping these schools closed purely out of spite. It’s purely political. They’re listening to the teacher’s union and not to the parents,” said Kelsey.
Kelsey says district leaders didn’t like being singled out by Lee in a speech he gave last month, in which Lee was critical of districts that have not returned to in-person learning.
“Prior to that, Shelby County Schools had had a plan to reopen on February 8. As soon as that school board heard that challenge, they immediately reversed the very next day, and they said we are not going to open on February 8,” said Kelsey.
Memphis State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, the lone Democrat on the education committee, pushed back against Kelsey’s claims.
“With all due respect to Chairman Kelsey, I think that that is a truly unfair characterization of the Shelby County School Board and of our superintendent, Dr. Ray,” said Akbari.
Akbari called Kelsey’s bill an effort to bring what should be a local fight to the state level and says she trusts SCS leadership.
“Their decision not to reopen on February 8th had absolutely nothing to do with the governor’s statements during the education special session,” said Akbari. “Every time I’ve talked to them their focus is on making sure that their teachers, their students, the parents that they have to go home to, and their staff stay safe.”
Akbari also says she had reached out to the governor’s office and believes an announcement is imminent.
“It’s not a political thing. It’s about children,” said Akbari.
When asked about Kelsey’s comments on Wednesday, Shelby County Schools sent a statement SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray said to the board last week, reiterating the district’s approach in determining when to reopen for in-person learning.
“Our decision to reopen schools and return to in-person learning has never been a unilateral decision. We will continue to work in step with our School Board as we prioritize the health and safety of educators and families. We are also working in concert with the Shelby County Health Department to get vaccinations for our teachers and employees.”
By an 8-1 vote, Kelsey’s bill advanced to the calendar committee, which schedules legislation for the full Senate to consider.