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August 11, 2020

Governor Bill Lee:

Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us for our briefing today. Today, we will be talking about the latest on special session more about the continued reopening of our schools. Commissioner Schwinn will be giving a report. We'll hear reports from the Department of Labor and Workforce. Jeff McCord is here today, Danielle Barnes, our Human Services Commissioner is here as well. We have a lot of topics to go over. So thanks for being here.

Governor Bill Lee:

Before we get started, I want to acknowledge leaders in the communities that are working with us to make sure that our response to COVID mitigates the spread of the virus, Weekly County Mayor, Jake Bynum, this week. Another mayor who instituted a massive requirement for his state, his partners, critical partners like Jeff that understand that buy-in occurs with local leaders, engaging with their communities. And I appreciate and applaud his work there with greater buying around mass. We're seeing, cautiously optimistic, really seeing numbers that are encouraging, but all the more reason why we cannot stop and we have to double down on our efforts, continue to work together in ways that we believe are going to best mitigate the virus.

Governor Bill Lee:

Wearing a mask, I tell folks all the time wearing a mask is their individual way to ensure that the things that matter to them most about their lives can continue in the midst of a pandemic, businesses, schools, getting out, moving around and their way of life. So I commend the leaders that are working with us on that. As we move into our business, we will talk about special session, special sessions in full swing as the legislature is moving to address issues around liability protection for businesses, that protection against frivolous lawsuits at the same time, providing protection for individuals in cases of willful misconduct or gross negligence, we can accomplish both of those.

Governor Bill Lee:

We're very encouraged about the progress that's being made to protect those businesses and churches and organizations and healthcare workers against lawsuits and frivolous lawsuits, that do not benefit anyone in our state. I'm also encouraged with the movement that we're seeing in telehealth legislation that will provide greater access to Tennessee and state healthcare. We found in this COVID-19 pandemic that our healthcare system needs some level of modernization, particularly as it relates to telehealth, this will provide a greater access to telehealth that will provide payment via insurance companies for those services, and it will expand not only telehealth, but health services for Tennesseans is all across the state.

Governor Bill Lee:

There's significant work being done on the third Bill that is put in place to address policies for the Capitol grounds. As it relates to vandalism and destruction of property and protection of law enforcement, I've been really clear that we need to protect the peaceful assembly that is allowed through the First Amendment and protect the integrity of that assembly, but at the same time, protect against lawlessness and destruction of property and those things which will impede that integrity of the protection of those rights.

Governor Bill Lee:

I'm hopeful that there'll be consensus reached on that bill as well. And speaking of that, I want to commend Tennessee Highway Patrol and their continued efforts to protect the state Capitol in their work here. We have a highly professional THP force and I'm deeply grateful for their commitment and continued service here on the Capitol grounds.

Governor Bill Lee:

We'll move to reports because we have a lot to report before we get to Q&A. Commissioner schwinns joined us to provide updates on school reopening and more information on the Child Wellbeing Task Force. We'll also talk about how our administration's trying to work through the best policy to provide data around COVID cases in schools while protecting student privacy at the same time.

Governor Bill Lee:

It's a complicated subject that has a lot of legal ramifications, but one of the most important and of utmost importance is protecting individual information around children and making sure that parents know that their kids' information around their health is being protected, but at the same time providing parents information that's relevant to COVID cases in their counties, in their schools. So we'll be talking about that as well. In fact, Commissioner Schwinn, would you come up and give your report. Thank you.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Good afternoon. Thank you for having me. So we're halfway through August, as of last week, we had about a third of our districts that were open. In addition, we have another third that are opening this week. I had the great opportunity to be in schools last week with Governor Lee at Obion Central High School and was also had the privilege of being able to visit Kenrose Elementary in Williamson County with leader Johnson Creek Wood High School in Dixon County and Centennial Elementary School.

Commissioner Schwinn:

And I think what I saw in those visits is the same thing that people are experiencing across the state. As we talk about the reopening of schools, they were children kindergarten and first graders who were excited to be in classrooms, were excited to see their teachers. There were teachers who had come together, oftentimes mixing across actual classrooms and buildings working with one another and trying to start school in a positive, joyous way, which is how we know the first days of school should be.

Commissioner Schwinn:

We've seen principals, superintendents and district leaders and staff who've been working incredibly hard all summer in a variety of different formats to make sure that school reopening focuses on children, making sure they are safe and healthy and making sure they have access to the highest quality education possible. We also know that for far too many students across the state COVID-19 and the challenges and issues that come with that have had an incredibly difficult impact on themselves, their families and their communities.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Ensuring that children have what they need to be resilient during this time, to have the resources and supports that they need to be successful and to thrive is incredibly important. And that's why Governor Lee charged me in the department with the Child Wellbeing Task Force. It's made up of 38 leaders from across the state who have come together regularly to talk through and plan out what child wellbeing checks, resources, and supports can look like across the state.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Today the department will be releasing guidance documents, and a toolkit for wellbeing checks that can be conducted across the state. The leaders on this task force have been working incredibly hard along with other agency partners across the state to determine what that toolkit should be, what the resources should be and how to support local communities with doing these very critical child wellbeing checks when children cannot be in school buildings.

Commissioner Schwinn:

We also are very excited to partner with the CDC. We've received a CDC grant to have eight different staff members across the state who will be charged with working with local school communities to be able to support child wellbeing checks, and ensure that when children are not in school buildings, that they have the opportunity to receive nutrition and to thrive in the same ways that they should be if they are able to attend physical school regularly.

Commissioner Schwinn:

We also want to ensure that as children are coming back into school, as we see teachers working incredibly hard to support all of the needs of their students, that these eight staff members will be able to support that transition and our school districts in reopening safely. And again, with children front of mind. The work is incredibly challenging, I want to underscore that these are not easy times for our school districts. We know that superintendents have been really thinking about the best decisions in their school communities and we know that with school reopening, there will always be challenges and hiccups that we are overcoming.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Everything from making sure that kindergartners as they are entering, know the new procedures that are in place and same thing as we think about our district leaders who are navigating all of the gaps and or issues that are coming from being away from school for so long. In that, we also know that many of our schools and our communities are looking for information, they want to make sure that they have the resources and information they need in order to make decisions.

Commissioner Schwinn:

So one of the things the department has released is on our website is a dashboard. That dashboard is updated on a daily basis from our districts, and it will communicate with our families and school communities the status of opening within the district. Right now, and up to this point, we have published information that says whether or not the district is open in an in person, in a hybrid or in a fully remote setting. It also provides information on the start date for our districts.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Districts as they have changes, whether that's a partial, remote learning or full remote learning throughout the year, that will be updated by the district and automatically updated on this public dashboard. Again, that is so families and community members who are looking for information on the status of schools will be able to do that in a very transparent and public way. It also provides a link to the website for those districts, so that when families and or community members have questions, they have the right information and contact information, whether it's their child's school or whether it's the district office.

Commissioner Schwinn:

So that dashboard is currently populated up and running and will continue to be updated as districts have updates to provide. As part of school reopening though, we want to make sure that we're taking the steps necessary so that when people are back in school buildings, children are receiving that teacher directed instruction and starting these first few weeks that people have what they need in order to feel safe and healthy so we can focus on educating our children.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Again, very excited and happy about the $77 million investment. Plus the investment in our school nurses, our nutritional staff, and our bus drivers around PPE and other safe resources. We are working very closely with TEMA to be able to produce more information around when those shipments arrive, to make sure that teachers and school staff are able to have that information work with their districts, to be able to do any reordering, and again, make sure those supplies stay in constant stream so folks have what they need as they are able to focus on educating children.

Commissioner Schwinn:

And then finally this week, the department's really excited to be able to announce that we have our innovative assessment platform up and running on school net. That online platform is the result of work with our teachers and principals and superintendents. They've been asking for this and so we think that now is a great time to be able to roll out a series of resources, completely free and optional for our school communities.

Commissioner Schwinn:

First, we have the start of the year checkpoint, this is a checkpoint that is a short form assessment that matches the spring summit of assessment. It allows teachers to give a very brief assessment to students as they are coming into their classrooms to identify any gaps in learning that might have occurred as a result of the extended school building closures from the spring.

Commissioner Schwinn:

There's also a mock interim assessment. The mock interim assessment allows, through the school year teachers to be able to determine progress towards proficiency at the end of the year. And then we also have [inaudible] and teacher created formative assessments. We know that teachers in the classroom need to have the resources to be able to both do teaching and learning and make sure that they are providing students with high quality instructional materials and instruction, but also that they need to have a really easy to access user-friendly format in order to provide short form quizzes and assessments throughout the year, to help identify ongoing progress and growth for students in their classrooms.

Commissioner Schwinn:

These teachers created formatives do allow for that opportunity. They can be given in person or they can be assigned online. So again, really excited that we'll be able to have that level of opportunity for educators to be extended in any format through school [inaudible].

Commissioner Schwinn:

As a closing comment, I just also want to, as I typically do, thank the superintendents, teachers and principals across the state, we are in school reopening, and when we're doing that in a really challenging environment, unlike any that we've ever opened schools with, I've been incredibly impressed that folks have stayed committed to and focused on the students in the building, making sure that they feel welcomed and loved as they come back into school, as all children should feel.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Making sure that we are identifying all of the needs that come with them, and making sure we are supporting everyone within the school building and in our communities to provide the highest quality education for our students in a way where they are safe, healthy, and loved. So I want to say thank you to superintendents in communities they're doing an excellent job and thank you for having me again [inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

I too want to add my appreciation to districts, to school boards, to superintendents, to teachers, and to parents who are having to all work together in circumstance and situations that we've never faced before. But you're doing so with a level of high integrity and very encouraged with what we've seen so far on the ground. So thank you. Commissioner [inaudible] has joined me today to provide an update on the pandemic EBT program and available grants for nonprofits and our efforts to get those funds out. So commissioner [inaudible].

Commissioner Barnes:

Thank you governor. The department has quite a few deadlines looming this week, so I do appreciate having the opportunity to talk to you all today. The first of those is what we call the pandemic EBT, P-EBT as you all have heard it called. As you all know schools and commissioners Schwinn even acknowledged this. Schools are a place for children to receive nutritious and regular meals during the school year. And unfortunately with the impact of COVID many schools closed and our children just did not have access to those meals. The USDA did approve this pandemic EBT to be administered by the state of Tennessee at the end of may. We began a process for distributing these benefits which includes payments to families for each child in the amount of $5.70 for each meal they would have received during the time in which they were in school.

Commissioner Barnes:

These benefits can be used at any grocery store that accepts EBT payments as well as Amazon and Walmart now online. So we're really excited about that potential partnership as well. Families who receive free and reduced meals or attend a community eligible provisional school are eligible for this program. It's designed to replace any of those lost meals that occur during the months of March, April and May due to those school closures. Just to give you a perspective, as of Monday we have approved more than 450,000 children to receive P-EBT benefits. And that represents just slightly over half of all students in the state of Tennessee. We did create an application process in order to make sure that we can verify addresses and family information. And so that application is indeed online. That application period will close on Friday at 4.30 and that's this Friday, August 14th.

Commissioner Barnes:

And so we do encourage all families to go even if they think they're eligible, go on and apply so that we can get that process moving. The big part of that is just making sure that we have the data and accurate, again information for those families, proper street addresses so that we can make sure that those families do indeed benefit from those services. The other program that the department is administering currently is the program I spoke to you all last about that is the Tennessee Community Cares program. And that is allowing the department to provide $150 million in direct federally funded aid to nonprofit organizations. The award range for this program for nonprofits is anywhere between $25,000 and $2 million. We have partnered with a series of grant administrators across the state, including the United ways of greater Chattanooga, greater Knoxville, greater Nashville, and United way of mid South, along with the second harvest food bank of middle Tennessee.

Commissioner Barnes:

We're really excited about their partnership because what we know is that these organizations have their feet on the ground. They know the needs of their organization, they know the needs of their community, and they are able to help us better distribute these dollars quicker to those nonprofits that need them. That application period is going to be open until noon on August 15th. Again, it is available to any nonprofit, any 501(C)(3) that is experiencing or has served the organization that has helped families with school aged children who've had new educational needs due to COVID. Organizations that provide emergency assistance because of the pandemic, including homelessness and eviction, lack of nutrition. Those that are providing assistance to the disabled and vulnerable population, those that are providing public health services because of the pandemic, those that have provided business support because of the pandemic.

Commissioner Barnes:

And these grants it's important to note can go back to any expenses that have been incurred as early as March 1st. So it's really important for those organizations that have been doing business, those nonprofits that have been providing those services in the community to seek these dollars. It's a really good opportunity for us to really be able to partner and infuse those dollars into the community where we need them. And again, that application period is coming up on noon of August 15th. And so we really encourage people to apply online. And again, that's through our website as well. So thank you. Thank you governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Part of the value of having these opportunities to do press briefings is to get information out, it really is the reason to do them. And the pandemic AVT program is a perfect example of our need to get information out. We're working with a lot of organizations that serve these families to try and make certain that families that need that benefit get it. So your ability in the media to spread that word is helpful to us as well. Commissioner McCord, if you would come give an update regarding unemployment insurance and changes that are coming from the federal government just this week.

Commissioner McCord:

Thank you governor. And thank you for having me today. Just very briefly over the weekend, president Trump signed a presidential memorandum related to unemployment insurance benefits. And what the structure of that looks like is a $300 federal allotment for enhanced benefits and a potentially a hundred dollar state.

Commissioner McCord:

So potentially additional $400 of unemployment insurance, just like the $600 was before. This is a little bit different though. This is administered through FEMA and there's a grant process that states will have to apply in order to receive funding. We have seeking clarity on things like that process itself how it works, what qualifies from the state side as matching funds and actually what the allotment for Tennessee would be. We actually have our team right now on the white house briefing with FEMA and USDOL to walk through the first initial points of that information. And we expect additional guidance from USDOL later this week is what we've been told. So we will certainly keep you updated governor as we go through that process.

Governor Bill Lee:

Okay. Any of those commissioners are available, including Patrick Sheehan here from Tema part of our unified command group to answer any questions. And we're happy to take questions now.

Speaker 1:

Well governor, actually this is for you and commissioner McCord. Do you have a sense of what that would cost Tennessee for the president's executive order and would Tennessee participate?

Governor Bill Lee:

You've probably made more calculus on that than me.

Speaker 1:

We have hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans without unemployment benefits. Special session is doing bills for business, for healthcare and things aimed at protestors. But right now there's nothing for unemployment. And that's a question that we're getting from some lawmakers, but a lot of people out there in Tennessee.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. So first of all the unemployment numbers are staggering would be the right term, although they're moving in the right direction and we're encouraged by that. That's part of the reason we need to continue to double down on our efforts to mitigate the spread so we can continue to keep businesses open and open more businesses so folks can get off the unemployment roles. But in the meantime, that's what our department of labor part of our responsibility is, is to provide unemployment insurance for those who do. And we have been and will continue to do that. There's a lot of federal guidance yet to be directed about this particular plan, but we certainly would participate in that. The degree to what that's going to cost the state really hard to know. Significant, it'll be a significant cost. That's what unemployment insurance is for. That's what our unemployment insurance trust fund is for, but not knowing the status of the economic recovery really difficult to take a stab at the numbers. Can you add to that?

Commissioner McCord:

So that's part of what we're finding out today and this week. It was signed on Saturday and we have done some back of the envelope calculus and some number running, but that changed with guidance today that we are listening to on what might be able to count for a match, what might not be able to count for a match. So we are still in the process of understanding what it would cost Tennessee and the benefit that we'd be able to provide and the length of that benefit with this program. So those answers are still yet to be found from our standpoint, but we should have those soon.

Speaker 1:

By the end of the week or I mean have you been given an indication on when the department of labor would give states more guidance on this?

Commissioner McCord:

Yes. They told us within the next couple of days. And so unfortunately we are at the mercy since it is a federal program at that federal guidance. And we take that federal guidance and we understand how it will impact Tennesseans and how it'll impact the state as a whole. And then we'll make a decision from there. But right now we don't have enough information to make a good decision. And so we'll wait until we have that information so we can make that decision.

Speaker 1:

And one more quick question that's on part of the special session call, governor could you go over what I'm told were your reservations about the bill filed concerning protests?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, so generally let me just say that that bill was filed as I outlined protects our first amendment, but also to protect against lawlessness. I think that's the direction of where the bill is going. It's in the middle of hourly changes right now. So where it lands, where it ends up, the concerns we have until we know what's really going to be in it really impossible to actually address right now. But I think we're moving in the right direction. We're doing something that needs to be done. Clarity needs to be brought to the existing wall that's not completely clear. So I'm encouraged about that.

Speaker 1:

And just to... There was a letter that was sent to you by the black legislators up here. And forgive me if you've addressed that in previous briefings, they've asked to meet with you. Would you be meeting, have you met with them about this issue?

Governor Bill Lee:

I have not met with them about this issue. No, I have not. I haven't met with any group of lawmakers.

Speaker 1:

Do you plan to meet as a group which they've requested in this letter?

Governor Bill Lee:

I would say I don't have any plans to, but I would be happy to.

Speaker 2:

Hi governor. Recently representative Clyburn has sent a letter to Tennessee asking for documents about your response to COVID-19. He sent it to a handful of states. Has your administration responded? I think you have until tomorrow though that was his requested deadline.

Governor Bill Lee:

We talked about that response even today and about the information that we're going to provide to them. And we're working to get a response.

Speaker 2:

Did you feel that Tennessee was unfairly targeted in that request?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, I think that letter went out to a lot of organizations and a lot of states. I think there was a general broad effort to reach folks that that particular lawmaker thought were not going the right direction. We get a lot of input from a lot of folks about the direction we're headed, both positive and negative. So I would just say we're going to respond.

Speaker 2:

You're going to respond by tomorrow?

Governor Bill Lee:

That's right.

Speaker 2:

Okay. Thank you.

Ryan Breslin:

Hey, Governor. Ryan Breslin from News 4. The special session is estimated to cost $119,000 for three days. Democratic Chair Mike Stewart told us today that he thinks that it's a waste of time to the taxpayers on those dollars and he says the only reason that you called it is because the COVID-19 Liability Bill was rejected before. What's your response to that?

Governor Bill Lee:

Liability protection for businesses, for healthcare workers, for schools and for churches is very important. Those are organizations, in part, that make our economy move forward. It's very important that we do. That's very important that we clarify protection for individuals and businesses. Tele-health is incredibly important in the middle of a pandemic and for Tennesseans to have the ability to have increased access to healthcare services and to have that economically work for them, it's incredibly important in the middle of this session.

Governor Bill Lee:

To clarify the laws around, as we have protests and as we have the exercise of the First Amendment, clarifying laws around that, to make sure that those individuals and that First Amendment protection, is the integrity of that is good and strong. At the same time, protecting law enforcement property and protecting against lawlessness. Those are incredibly important issues and I believe none of those issues should wait until the next legislative session, which is why we called it.

Ryan Breslin:

Could I ask you a question about the pandemic EBT?

Governor Bill Lee:

Sure.

Ryan Breslin:

Commissioner Barnes. So as it relates to the pandemic EBT, you said the application period ends this Friday. If you don't have those families apply by then, how much would the state then forfeit back to the federal government for that? I heard it could be $50 million.

Commissioner Barnes:

Well, let's be clear. It's not a forfeiture, right? These are direct reimbursements that these dollars come directly to the folks that apply. We have extended this application period a few times and the federal government, the way that this program was constructed, required that all dollars be spent by September 30th and that does require the appeals period as well. So that's why we push this out as long as we possibly can. We do hope that we've got, we are encouraging you all to help us get that word out to as many communities as we possibly can. We pushed it out, hoping with school opening that we could reach even more children, but at the end of the day, we don't know exactly how many children are going to apply. We do think we've got really good numbers and that we've had again, more than half of all of our children that have qualified for this program.

Ryan Breslin:

Okay. Thank you.

Speaker 3:

Good afternoon Governor. Thanks so much for answering our questions today. So talking about the protester bill that my colleague, [inaudible], asked earlier. During the discussion today the Republican sponsor, talked about how the majority of the protests here in Nashville and in the state have been peaceful. So I want to know, do you agree with that idea that the majority of the protesters during the last few months have been peaceful?

Governor Bill Lee:

I do. I do think they have been.

Speaker 3:

So then it's just a few bad apples in these groups of protesters that are causing this issue. So why target this minority with this law? Why is it important to address this when they are just a minority and a few bad apples?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, breaking the law is breaking the law and destruction of property is a destruction property. Generally it's as you say, a few bad apples, that those are the folks that break the law, whether it's around destruction of property or the state property or protests or any other law enforcement that the vast majority of our citizens are not law breakers, but we construct law to prevent folks from breaking the law, whether they're it's a small group of folks or the vast, large majority,

Speaker 3:

The protesters out there are also asking, to address police brutality and systemic racism. There's a few bad apples in law enforcement as well that are pushing for this or that are guilty of this. Your administration doesn't seem to be targeting those few bad apples within law enforcement.

Governor Bill Lee:

We actually had a press conference here and met with and talked about the partnership that we have formed and are forming with chiefs of police, the TBI, the Sheriff's organization, law enforcement across the state to specifically address issues around reform and policing in our state and to have uniformity among that. There'll be a report soon to be the first step in an ongoing effort for those reforms. Systemic racism, I have had three meetings so far with African American leaders across the state, to begin the process of listening and trying to understand a long view about, and in a greater way, have a greater understanding of how it is that we can address some of these things in our state. So we're moving in that direction. I'm encouraged by that.

Speaker 3:

During the discussions today, I know this bill is changing, like you said, constantly, but the house, it seems like they took away the concurrence jurisdiction of the attorney general after hearing from the DAs from all across the state. Would you feel comfortable sending a bill without the AG provision?

Governor Bill Lee:

Again, it changing by the hour and we don't know where that's going to all land. I'd be really interested to read the final language is when we get there, but until then I don't know where it's going to land.

Speaker 3:

My last question Governor. How does this bill, we're talking about enhancing some penalties, we're talking about mandatory minimums, we're talking about a minimum of 12 hours in jail, depending the crime committed. How does that fit in your criminal justice reform plan? Because at the end of the day, it seems like we'll be sending more people to these prisons.

Governor Bill Lee:

So criminal justice reform is about appropriate sentencing. It's about more effective re-entry. It really is about rehabilitation, but it doesn't exclude penalty for breaking the law. It doesn't exclude working against issues of lawlessness. So we have to have both of those, that's what good criminal justice reform is. That'll be our efforts go forward.

Speaker 4:

Thank you Governor. So I got a couple of questions for Commissioner Schwinn first, and then I'll follow up with a few for you. So Commissioner, I just wanted to clarify and pardon my ignorance if you guys have spelled this out, but should or will schools be required to tell students and staff to wear masks as they head back into schools for in person?

Commissioner Schwinn:

Yep. So as of right now, all of the guidance that we have put out in every toolkit, every letter in partnership with the department of health has been encouraging masks specifically in middle school and high school and for all staff. As I said, we've provided in partnership with TEMA, the governor has allocated a significant amount of money for people to have all of the resources to do so. We are leaving it to the local discretion about what that looks like. Now, to be clear, we do expect that schools are taking the necessary precautions that they're doing, social distancing, frequent hand washing, hand sanitizing, etc. If all of those are taken into account, if all of those procedures are put into place, it keeps people safe and that's what we would expect our schools to be doing.

Speaker 4:

And then given what you had announced today about this dashboard to keep parents informed a little bit more, how will schools inform parents and students about positive cases and potential exposures?

Commissioner Schwinn:

Sure. So we have put out a number of resources there at the top of our website on the school reopening page. So when and if there is a positive case in a school, there is a district in school action team that should be in place. There's some guidance on our website about that. They go through the protocol of making sure that they notify families, typically that has already the County health department or local health officials have already been notified because there's a positive case. So that's working separately and what we've seen in the districts where that has been a case and there was one I'll use a specific district example. What happened was there was a positive case. The school was notified. The school then notified the family members of any students in that classroom. Those students all went into the mandatory quarantine period, and then they were able to resume school as normal. So our districts have been working through those protocols as expected for those that we've been in contact within the first few weeks.

Speaker 4:

Thank you, and then a couple of questions for you, Governor. According to a new poll, out today from the Boyd center, 74% of Tennesseans support mask requirements in their local community, given that polling, does that make you rethink your decision to hold back on a statewide mandate?

Governor Bill Lee:

You know, 70% of our population is under a mask requirement across this state and we're adding to that weekly as I announced today. So I actually think, and as Dr. Burke said, she applauded that and agreed with that strategy. I think it's the right strategy for our state. I think it's the right direction going forward. There's continued adherence or adoption of those practices. I've said really strongly that local buying is what really gets folks to wear masks, local authorities, local elected officials that are advocating for this have a lot more, there are a lot more compelling than a state dictate from the state government.

Governor Bill Lee:

So I think it's working, I'm encouraged by the progress. We're also encouraged by the impact that it's having. We're cautiously optimistic with the direction of our numbers.

Speaker 4:

And then on a completely unrelated subject, do you have plans to go to the RNC this year?

Governor Bill Lee:

To the convention I'm not, no, I would do not.

Speaker 4:

Any reason are you worried about COVID?

Governor Bill Lee:

It's for the most part been canceled. Most parts of it have been canceled.

Speaker 4:

Some people are still going. I know Scott Golden told me yesterday he was so-

Governor Bill Lee:

There's the technical piece of that, right? Where they actually make the nomination and it requires the folks that need to participate in that, but I won't be going.

Speaker 4:

And then one last clarification you were talking about the unemployment amount that the feds are going to provide. It sounded like you said, you weren't really clear and maybe Commissioner McCord can clarify this. If that money, the matching money can come from the UI fund that we have. Wouldn't that just reduce the baseline that we have to pay people and benefits? Wouldn't you want to find that money from elsewhere?

Governor Bill Lee:

It wouldn't have to reduce the baseline. We have over a billion dollars in our unemployment trust fund. So it would, reduce that trust fund, but it would not necessarily reduce the benefit that we currently pay in the state.

Speaker 4:

Thank you.

Speaker 5:

Hi Governor. I have one question for commissioner Schwinn after this, too. I'll ask you first, since you're already up there, the liability protection bill. The critics of that would worry that it might go too far and not just protect against frivolous lawsuits, but give a business or a school, the opportunity to skirt some of these rules that you put in place, because it would be so hard to sue them. So how do you make sure in drafting this legislation and debating this, that we're not going to end up with something that does go too far or fulfill those fears?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, that's the real challenge isn't it? Is to provide for legislation that protects individuals and individual rights and protects businesses at the same time. And let me just say too, protecting a business protects workers, so long as that business has not had willful misconduct or gross negligence. That protects jobs that protects the ability for that business to continue to operate outside of lawsuits that are brought against it. So that's the balance. That's the balance that we've struck. Protection of businesses, appropriate protection, but appropriate protection of individuals as well.

Speaker 5:

And Commissioner Schwinn, I just have one or two for you, if you don't mind. The school districts that have already reopened, some of them have had a few cases, and by virtue of their being first, they're the example that everyone else looks to. How have you felt about the way that those districts have reacted to having a few dozen cases? Some have opted for more virtual schooling. There's been several different approaches. Have you been pleased with that? And would you then based off of what you're going to see from schools offer different guidance if it ever came to that?

Commissioner Schwinn:

Sure. Thanks for those questions. First, what I want to be clear of is we certainly have districts who are opening up, the first to open up in the state, but these are the first districts to open up in the country. So they're taking the responsibility, not just of leading the state, but oftentimes leading 49 other states and what school reopening can look like and that's a really big deal. I commend and applaud those superintendents because that's a tough position to be in.

Commissioner Schwinn:

You're right. We do expect that there will be positive cases in schools. That's going to happen throughout the year. It's how we mitigate for that proactively, and then how we respond on the backend. For those districts who have experienced positive cases in these first few weeks, I have been very pleased with their response. I think many of them, if not all of our districts, have gone through a series of protocols this summer, both with the department, as well as within their own districts. Going through their health procedures, making sure that they have a step by step understanding of what to do, and they are the first to do it. So there's no guidebook, there's no playbook.

Commissioner Schwinn:

What has been, I think, especially important as they've worked closely with their local health officials, to be able to make really strong decisions for themselves in their communities. They've been very open with the department of education and worked closely with us, looking for solutions, partnering for individual decisions. And I think from that perspective, we've been very pleased with the relationships that exist. Now in terms of districts that are moving forward, going into the remainder of the school year, I think the things that we're saying on our superintendent calls three times per week, I would echo here, and that is lessons learned. The procedures that Dr. Piercey's been talking about for months now, they work, they are effective. We have to make sure we're taking the necessary precautions. And those are the things that frankly I saw in the elementary and in the high schools that I visited last week.

Commissioner Schwinn:

You saw students who were spaced apart in classrooms. You saw students who were using hand sanitizer and washing their hands constantly. In some cases you saw some of the desk guards, students eating individually, and especially in transitions, you saw spacing in hallways. Now in elementary schools that students are going fingertip to fingertip down the hallway, especially with the little ones. In high schools, we've seen more students who are masking up when they're in transitions. Those are some of the things our schools are doing that we have not seen around the country. And that is why I feel very optimistic the schools will continue to be able to open safely if they take those steps into consideration and implement them.

Speaker 5:

My last question would be about some of the things that you announced today. One of them being assessments to help a teacher ascertain if a student has fallen behind. My guess is that you would say it's much more difficult to make up that difference in virtual schooling as opposed to in-person schooling, but have you given teachers guidance about ways to ... or what would you tell teachers to customize learning plans and be able to do that virtually? I'm not a teacher, but my hunch is that that's more difficult.

Commissioner Schwinn:

Yeah. I think one of the most important things you said before I get to the answer that I want to reiterate is that this is really hard. And teachers are working incredibly hard to do what they always do, which is create a safe, loving environment for their kids and teach them effectively. But they have to do that also thinking about the time that was missed or lost last year, and every district's in a different setting. So I want to applaud the teachers for putting in that work. It's going to be a lot more than what we would normally see as expected. For these assessments, what we have done is two things. So one is, it allows for remote or in-person. You can use a PDF. Students can take it on the computer. There's a guide that allows for information for the teacher, the principal, and the district on how to both assess, use the assessment and then what to do with the information that comes in. And then in partnership with best for all central, which has the resources, both professional, development, and videos, what we're encouraging is that you can assign videos out to students for remediation, especially because we are seeing that the gap between your kind of the student with the lowest proficiency in your class, and the highest is much wider than we would normally see.

Commissioner Schwinn:

So teachers can't necessarily get to every child in a class period. You can assign those out as additional supports, as additional resources and remediation. There's also the parent guides to help parents walk their students through that and the smaller assessments to check progress along the way. In addition to a suite of professional development videos that teachers can watch in order to support how they might use that in their instruction throughout the year. So very, very pleased and just want to reiterate how much work went into that, both in the department and in our districts. Thanks.

Speaker 5:

Thank you.

Speaker 6:

Governor, if you'd like to close [crosstalk]

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you for your questions. Thank you, Tennesseans. As we think through this, the things that Tennesseans have done to help us navigate through a very difficult situation, whether you're a teacher, whether you're a high school kid wearing a mask to school, washing your hands, staying apart, wearing masks, doing what we've got to do to keep our businesses open, schools open. It takes the individual responsibility of every Tennessean and to do that and we're deeply grateful for that. I'm very hopeful for the future for our state. We have a lot of challenges ahead. We have a lot to work through, but that's what Tennesseans do. They step up and meet the challenge and we're doing it every day, so thank you.