The top issue facing school districts right now is how to restart after the COVID-19 shutdown of the spring. A SCORE review of the 20 largest districts in Tennessee finds that as of July 17, most districts have announced plans to reopen in-person while all districts are providing a virtual option for families throughout the year.

In addition to students, educators, and families urgently needing to know what school will look like in the next coming months, the topic of school reopening is of national interest and informed in part by near daily releases of research and experiences. A few examples:

  • Balancing safety and learning: The American Academy of Pediatrics outlined key considerations for how schools might physically reopen in the fall while mitigating risks to public health. The Center on Reinventing Public Education is tracking school reopening plans, identifying whether districts are planning for remote and hybrid school models, supporting vulnerable populations, and outlining safety precautions.
  • Prioritizing highest needs students: A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel of educators, school operations experts, public health and medical professionals, and researchers recommended that schools prioritize elementary students and students with disabilities in any reopening strategy.
  • Immediate and longer-term education recovery: Practical evidence briefs from the EdResearch for Recovery Project highlight short- and long-term initiatives – weeklong acceleration academies, small group tutoring and interventions, and sustained college and career advising – needed to mitigate the pandemic’s long-term impact on student educational opportunity.
  • Limits of virtual learning: While a necessary option as the pandemic plays out in each community, virtual learning in its current form will leave gaps in student learning. Data from the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker show significant learning gaps between high- and low-income students during the pandemic, and the digital divide remains a key barrier.

Based on past school calendars, Tennessee’s public schools, like those in many Southern states, will be among the first in the country to start the new school year after near universal COVID-19 related school closures in the spring. Tennessee’s experience will influence how schools across the country navigate reopening.

As educators and leaders work around the clock to plan their school opening strategies and state-required continuous learning plans, SCORE reviewed the reopening plans of Tennessee’s 20 largest school districts by student population to understand what school might look like in the coming months. (The Achievement School District was not included in the analysis because it operates in multiple counties with varying local pandemic conditions.)

According to 2018-19 district profile information, these districts serve:

  • Approximately 580,000 students, about 60 percent of the state’s total public school students.
  • Approximately 266,000 Black, Hispanic, and Native American (BHN) students, about 80 percent of the state’s total BHN public school students.
  • Approximately 200,000 economically disadvantaged students (ED), about 60 percent of the state’s total ED public school students.
  • Approximately 73,000 students with disabilities (SWD), about 56 percent of the state’s total public school SWD.

As with most pandemic-related information, the plans are subject to change as local leaders respond to changing local conditions and our analysis is accurate up to July 17. Here’s what we found.

Reopening Format
In person14 districts
All virtual2 districts
To be determined4 districts to finalize plans based on local public health context
First Day Of School For Students
Before August 1515 districts
After August 155 districts
Distance Learning Support
All-virtual option for families20 districts
Evidence of 1:1 device support from district12 districts

State policymakers placed a high degree of flexibility in the hands of local districts to make locally responsive decisions for students. Because decisions by individual districts about school reopening encompass the state’s education response to COVID-19, SCORE will continue to monitor how individual districts provide student learning in the coming school year.