Gov. Bill Lee says his office is not pushing legislation that would take funds from school districts that don’t resume in-classroom schedules for 70 days this year or 180 days in 2021-22,  amid questions about its legality. 

The governor appears to be softening his stance on the matter after tough talk before the recent special session on education, even though the House Majority leader William Lamberth plans to renew a bill potentially penalizing systems when the legislative session starts Feb. 8.

Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-44 (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The governor also said the state will stick with its COVID-19 vaccination schedule, which could put teachers up for shots in March, even though he wants students back in classrooms immediately.

Lee said during a press conference Wednesday his office is not discussing a reduction in state funds to school districts that don’t return students to classrooms.

“We’re just working together with them and offering all the support we can for them to get their kids back in school,” Lee said.

Metro Nashville Public Schools recently committed to returning students to classrooms by phasing them in over the next months. Lee said he hopes Shelby County Schools will take the same step.

“We’ve offered unlimited supply of rapid tests for their use, and we have prioritized teachers in the vaccination process, as you know, behind healthcare workers and the elderly. They are the first in lines for vaccines,” the governor said.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office declined to comment Thursday on whether AG Herbert Slatery had issued a memo saying it would be legally unwise to withhold funds from districts for not returning to schools.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro predicted legal challenges would be made against any efforts to cut off funding to districts.

“I don’t think the state wants to have even more finance litigation with districts, and I can’t imagine the state would want to have a public hearing on the state’s COVID response or the limited and conflicting guidance that’s been given to our schools,” said Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.

Tennessee is already tied up in a lawsuit with Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools over funding.

Yet House Majority Leader William Lamberth said Wednesday he is prepared to renew legislation that could strip state money from Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts if they don’t send children back to classrooms for 70 days this school year and 180 in 2021-22. Lamberth sponsored that type of legislation in the most recent special session on education, although the Senate version was filed late and never gained enough traction to be considered.

“We want to make sure that in-person learning is an option statewide. I commend the leadership in the Nashville school system for making that happen in Nashville, and I hope every school system in the state follows suit,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican. “It has got to be the standard from Mountain City to Memphis that every parents has the option to choose whether in-person or virtual is the best for their child.”

Gov. Lee says he will not pursue legislation to withhold funds from Shelby and Metro Nashville School districts as a stick to push schooling back into classrooms, but House Majority Leader William Lamberth plans to introduce similar legislation.

Teachers are slated to be in Phase 1b of the vaccination schedule, which could start in early March, though according to reports, some teachers have traveled to White and Carroll counties and gotten vaccinations. Those counties apparently have put teachers higher up on the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations than other counties.

Despite those discrepancies, Lee contends Tennessee’s vaccine distributions plan is considered the best in the nation by the Centers for Disease Control.

“We have prioritized teachers behind healthcare workers, but ahead of any other working category. So we feel good about the plan. We feel good about our ability to execute it. We just need vaccines,” Lee said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vince Dixie disagreed with the governor’s assessment, saying the state’s vaccination plan for teachers puts them at risk for catching COVID-19 when they return to classrooms.

Rep. Vincent Dixie (Photo: dixie4tn.com)
Rep. Vincent Dixie (Photo: dixie4tn.com)

“It’s definitely a problem,” said Dixie, a Nashville Democrat. “It’s indicative of his administration, how it’s been run from day one, very reactionary, not proactive.”

Dixie pointed out the Lee Administration knew it wanted students to return to classrooms early this year and had most of 2020 to prepare for that resumption, including setting a priority list that should have included teachers at the highest risk rating if he was “truly serious” about getting back to in-person learning.

Because of the three-week wait between the first and second inoculations, Metro Nashville and Shelby teachers wouldn’t be ready to return to classes if they took the initial shot this week. With teachers likely not to get their first vaccinations until early March, they wouldn’t be fully protected until late March or early April, Dixie said.

“It makes no sense,” he added.

Dixie also questioned the state’s distribution system, saying he isn’t convinced it is among the best in the nation.

The Tennessee Department of Health is reporting 723,200 vaccinations, 7.46% of the state’s 6.9 million residents receiving at least one dose.

Twenty states have given out vaccinations to at least 8% of their residents, with Connecticut leading the way at 10.3%, according to the Bloomberg COVID-19 vaccine tracker. More than 108 million shots have been given worldwide, 35 million in the United States.