Capitol Hill Update from State Representative David Byrd: October 7, 2020

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   Commission created to study impact of COVID-19, natural disasters on students —On the morning of March 3, 2020 devastating tornadoes wreaked havoc on Middle Tennessee. Schools were destroyed, homes leveled, and 24 lives were lost. Only two days later the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the state as the first case was reported. These circumstances caused schools across the state to be closed for the remainder of the school year beginning in mid-March.

   Public Chapter 734 passed this year examines the short- and long-term systemic efforts that the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters of 2020 have had on the state’s educational systems. The Tennessee Commission of Education Recovery and Innovation is charged with making recommendations to the General Assembly, the State Board of Education, the Department of Education, and the state’s institutions of higher education on strategies to close educational gaps resulting from school closures.  They will also recommend ways to modernize the state’s educational structure from kindergarten to career in order to create more flexibility in the delivery of education to students. The commissions’ recommendations will be due not later than January 1, 2022.

   New law ensures transparency in proposed textbooks and instructional materials – State lawmakers approved a measure this year making changes to the state’s Textbook Commission, including a provision to increase transparency in proposed textbooks and instructional materials. Public Chapter 770 requires publishers make all textbooks and instructional materials proposed for adoption available for inspection by Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and the public online at a central location on the state textbook depository website.

   The legislation also ensures that the Textbook Commission is independent from the Department of Education in its duties and that all members are vested with the responsibility to appoint the advisory panel of experts who review the materials and make recommendations. In addition, it addresses requests made by LEAs for textbook waivers and sets criteria regarding their approval or denial.

   Deadlines for higher education financial aid programs waived due to COVID-19 delays –Public Chapter 632 was approved to ensure students affected by Tennessee’s state of emergency are not denied access to higher education financial aid programs and scholarships due to specific calendar deadlines required under state law. The measure authorized the executive director for the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) to temporarily suspend, modify, or waive deadlines or other non-academic eligibility requirements in law rule or policy for any of Tennessee’s financial aid programs when an emergency declaration is issued by the governor.    

   Some of the state’s financial aid programs rely heavily on statutorily fixed dates in the calendar for students to meet certain deadlines. Previously, there was no latitude either in the statutes or in rule to provide the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation the ability to waive or suspend those fixed deadlines. The legislation provides for such latitude due to COVID-related school closures and the changing circumstances for high school attendance across the state. For example, graduating seniors in high school who are seeking to use the Tennessee Promise scholarship are required to attend certain meetings, submit proof of community service, and meet with their mentors by certain dates set by law. If a student does not do so, they cease to be eligible for the scholarship permanently.    

   This new legislation protects the tens of thousands of eligible high school graduates by giving necessary but temporary authority to state officials to make those deadline decisions as they arise due to COVID-19.  It will be repealed on June 30, 2021.​

   As always, I am truly humbled and honored to be your voice on Capitol Hill. If there is ever any issue I can assist with, please reach out to my office by calling 615-741-2190 or emailing me at rep.david.byrd@capitol.tn.gov.