State Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) recently spoke in support of a bill that waives school testing and the 180 day attendance requirement for this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

House Bill 2818 waives the requirements for all state mandated tests for the remainder of this school year. Bell was a cosponsor on the Senate version.

Schools are out at least through April 3, which caused concern about how standardized testing would be handled.

“We absolutely had to do it. We had no choice,” said Bell. “This literally is unprecedented. I don’t know if this has ever happened in the history of our state or the country because I think there is a good chance the children won’t go back to school at all this year.”

The bill will also waive the 180 day school attendance requirement in order to lend as much leeway to the schools as possible.

“We had to waive everything because we don’t know when people are able to go back,” said Bell. “I think everybody hopes for the best. To see us back in school, would like to see business returned to normal within the next couple of weeks but all indications are that is not going to happen.”

The bill will remove the requirements on the Local Education Association (LEA) to give testing or evaluate the teachers on the results of the tests.

“It is their option to do (the tests) if they choose to but they don’t have to,” said Bell. “With the schools being out for such an extended time ... I would be shocked if any of them are even considering going through with the testing and teacher evaluation at this time because of the unknown and the unknown being how long our lives will be disrupted by this virus.”

The addition of the 180 day waiver in the bill is a rare occurrence that resembles an event from the early 1990s, Bell said.

“From my memory, of course I wasn’t in office at the time, this may have been the first time a waiver like this on 180 days has been granted since the blizzard of 1993,” he said. “I think the school system here in McMinn County was probably out for two or three weeks at that time, but there were other schools and school districts in the state that were out for three weeks or longer.”

The waiver will allow for all current students to advance into their next grade level without the fear of being held back.

The bill also covers another topic that will allow college seniors to meet the requirements for work certifications.

“College seniors who are doing their student teaching requirements were also affected by this (closures due to COVID-19),” said Bell. “We had to include in the bill authority given to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to waive those student teaching requirements, that they have to have so many hours before they can get their license to teach, because with the schools being closed there is no way for them to get those hours they need to get their teaching license.”

He believes the bill was “all-encompassing” in order to handle as many of the potential drawbacks as possible that have stemmed from the coronavirus.

“They (students) are going to be playing catch up next year,” said Bell. “When they do come back they are going to be trying to catch up from the time they lost and we will have to address any concerns next year.”

The bill has passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously and was signed by the speaker of the House on Friday.

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